On November 19th, Founder and Executive Director of Twist Out Cancer Jenna Benn Shersher spoke to 150 attendees at the inaugural Brushes with Cancer event in Toronto, Canada.
Below is Jenna’s speech from the event.
It is an honor and a privilege to be here.
Coming back to Canada- in many ways feels like I am coming home. There are many of you in the room tonight that I have known since I was 17 years old, when I made the brave and bold decision to cross that border- and immerse myself in Quebecois culture.
It feel as if I am amongst family tonight- so thank you for the warm welcome.
Nearly 5 years ago, at the age of 29, I was diagnosed with Grey Zone Lymphoma, a blood cancer that affects less than 200 people in world.
In the months that followed my diagnosis, I was given the unique opportunity to bear witness to my own funeral.
I watched those closest to me mourn what seemed like an imminent passing
I saw them try to come to terms with how someone so young, could be taken so soon.
And I started to hear about how my life had in some way made an impact.
Before cancer, I was a 29 year old searching for fulfillment. I had hoped to fall in love, imagined what it would be like to lay roots, and dreamed about one day building a family.
Fighting a rare type of cancer, as a young adult- throws your hopes and dreams into a state of delirium. As my experiences became distilled into a series of cherished moments- I became keenly aware that I was on borrowed time.
My life as I knew it was on hold.
As I learned to exist in this holding pattern, I also started to notice how young adults with cancer had a unique set of needs that simply were not being met.
As I fought a cancer that was so rare, I had limited options of where I could turn to get the support and assurance that I needed. I wanted to be able to connect with others that had experienced what it was like to face their own mortality. I wanted to be told that I would not only survive, but that I would thrive.
As a young adult, there was no one I could talk to about the catastrophic impact chemotherapy could have on my eggs and ovaries. Not only was cancer killing me, but it was killing my ability to one day have children.
Why was no one talking about this?
As my treatment progressed, and my immune system became further compromised, I found myself increasingly lonely and isolated. I no longer related to the family and friends that had known me for years, but rather sought refuge online amongst a community that I had unknowingly built. It was this community where I found love, support and understanding. It was this community that allowed me to process the gravity of my situation. It was this community that allowed me to eventually heal.
When we refuse to speak about what’s hard- we aren’t being honest. And it is the silence that eventually turns into shame.
I was 29 years old, unsure if I was going to live or die, and I was riddled with shame.
It was a shame that tried to paralyze me, but instead inspired me.
Twist Out Cancer in many ways a battle cry- it is retaliation to that shame.
As I wrote in my blog throughout the many months of treatment, I found that when I shared the world opened up.
I wrote about the hard.
I wrote about the truth.
I wrote about the shame.
And in doing so- I connected with many of you. Old friends and new friends. Friends that have become like family.
When I finished treatment, I was determined to shed light on the unique set of psychosocial issues and circumstances that face the young adult population fighting cancer. And I was determined to give voice to the voiceless who had been stifled by a cancer diagnosis. It was the quiet, the tendency to retreat, and the shame that really rattled me. Imagine if more people came forward with their story, if more people came forward with their needs, and if there was a space to harness and celebrate creativity. We all need an outlet, a safe space to share our twist on cancer. This was the community that I was determined to create and is currently being built right here in Canada.
The launch of the Twist Out Cancer Canadian Chapter is a major milestone. My ability to tiptoe out of the shadows, out of the grey zone- and into the light would never have happened without Dan Hadad. Dan’s passion and drive to share Twist with Canada is why we are all here tonight. It is his vision, his hopes- and his dreams that have brought us here tonight.
I am incredibly indebted to you my friend- you provided me with incredible support and love during a very dark period of time. The cancer community in Canada is so lucky to have you at the helm, leading us and encouraging us to share our twists on cancer.
The program Brushes with Cancer was born 4 years ago in Chicago, when Anna Swarthout, a fellow grey zone lymphoma survivor that I had mentored put out a challenge asking the community to create a unique piece of artwork not using the shade of grey because that was all that she was seeing. In the midst of chemotherapy, Anna bravely made the call- and the community answered. Within days we had murals painted in Switzerland, sculptures created in Toronto, dances choreographed in harlem. The community was coming together to support Anna.
When Anna shared- the world opened up- and it was up to us to listen.
Brushes with cancer matches those touched by cancer with an artist that is charged with creating a unique piece of artwork reflective of their journey with cancer.
To honor my 5 year cancerversary, I chose to participate for the first time in Brushes with Cancer- as a subject. My artist, Aviad Herman, is an Israeli dancer and designer living in Sweden. As I embarked on this process, I found myself opening up about aspects of my life that I had never spoken about. Aviad and I connected over skype- by email, and on facebook messenger. The thousands of miles and experiences that separated us, became irrelevant. Technology had enabled us to connect in a meaningful way. Unsure of where our conversations would lead, I was admittedly nervous. What did I want to share with him, that others may not know. When you are so public about your experiences with cancer, its hard to figure out what is new or unique. 61/2 months ago, I gave birth to my beautiful daughter named Noa Pearl. Noa is for all intensive purposes a miracle. My husband and I still look at her in awe of how she made it into this world. As I have transitioned into my role of parent- I have found myself much more protective of my online profile, and what I choose to share with the public. Aviad made me feel safe. He found a way to ask me questions that no one else had asked. He showed a genuine interest in understanding my pain, my struggles, my triumphs and my strengths.
It was only when Aviad presented his artwork that I was fully able to understand the time, effort and love he put into this project. He approached Brushes with Cancer not as another artistic venture, but as an opportunity to connect, learn, support and inspire.
Brushes with Cancer creates unexpected intersections, and connections, creating a system of support no matter where you are at in your journey.
I cannot think of a better way to honor where where I have been, and where I currently am. Aviad- you will always hold a special place in my heart.
I want to thank the incredible host committee, subjects and artists that shared their passion, time, experiences and talents with us- we are so grateful for your participation and we hope this is only the beginning.
Thank you for being here tonight.
Thank you for making yourselves vulnerable.
And thank you for allowing the world to open up.