A Collaboration All Their Own

Lauren Smoke felt a lump in her breast six weeks after she became pregnant with her first child.  Eight weeks into the pregnancy she received a call – the lump was malignant. Lauren, a healthy yoga and music teacher for children, vividly recalls the moment that she realized she had breast cancer. She feared the worst. Losing her baby.

Pregnancy is a period of physical and emotional challenges. For Lauren, pregnancy included surgery and chemotherapy. Lauren received support from a community of women who received breast cancer treatment while pregnant.

Lauren had a son, Nico. He was born at 35 weeks healthy.

After one year and a half of remission, October 2016, Lauren was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer that has spread to the Mediastinal lymph nodes.
Dr. David Turok has been an artist for Brushes with Cancer, a program of Twist Out Cancer that provides psycho-social support to those touched by Cancer to improve the quality of life for Cancer patients, their family and loved ones, through a unique art experience. He more recently joined the board this past July because of his strong belief in Twist Out Cancer’s mission and programs.

Dr. David Turok is dentist and an artist based in Chicago. A few years ago, David was inspired by a piece of art that his niece painted. He decided to use the work as the canvas and backdrop for a meaningful art experience that would involve the whole family. The experiment became the foundation for his highly successful venture called KidCollab, which provides a unique and impactful experience for parents and family members, where the children’s art serves as the canvas for David’s painting. His instincts have proven to be accurate, as he has received numerous requests for artwork is booked out months in advance.

David believes that Brushes has been one of the most rewarding and engaging experiences of his life.

Lauren and David both participated in Brushes with Cancer last year, and connected at an event where David advertised KidCollab. Lauren contacted him to commission a piece after her first battle with cancer; they reconnected after her second diagnosis.

Finishing Lauren’s painting is a priority. Recently, Nico painted the background, moving around the canvas creatively and freely. David and Lauren have a developed a connection throughout the process. He recalls Lauren, “sang the most beautiful version of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star you have ever heard.” The painting will be an image of Lauren when she was pregnant with an elephant that has particular meaning to her and her family.

One of David’s favorite projects was created for Jenna Benn Shersher, Founder and Executive Director of Twist Out Cancer as a surprise. Jenna was diagnosed with Grey Zone Lymphoma at the age of 29. Therefore, there was an uncertainty regarding her ability to conceive a child. Her daughter is for all intensive purposes a miracle- and a blessing. For the piece, Jenna’s daughter, Noa Pearl, painted the canvas. The painting has an image of Jenna hula hooping, and  holding Noa, which represents the miracle of her birth.

According to Jenna, the piece serves as a constant reminder of how art can not only tell a story but serve as a tremendous catalyst for healing. David’s work hangs proudly in Noa’s room and is a constant reminder of the power of hope.

The connection that David and Lauren made after the Brushes with Cancer event showcases the power of the program and the importance of building community. Brushes with Cancer is not only about providing participants with a unique art experience, it is about building a supportive community that is there for them throughout their journey. Lauren, now facing her second bout with Cancer, has a community behind her that is ready to support her through every step.

To learn more about Brushes with Cancer and supporting our program please check our website for updated program details.

 

Is there a fringe benefit of cancer?

On Friday, September 9th, I had the opportunity to share my story with over 200 cancer survivors, artists and their loved ones at the 5th annual Voices and Visions Art Exhibition at the Art Center Highland Park. Curated by Caren Helene Rudman, this exhibit features art that expresses how cancer can be a metaphor for so many areas of our lives- from facing one’s mortality to survival and strength. The Artwork for those that participated, not only showcased the struggle, but it revealed how art has the ability to empower and heal.

This exhibition was particularly moving as Caren has recently lost her mother after a long battle with breast cancer. Her beautiful family was with us that evening to show support and honor her memory.

Caren reached out to me to ask if I could share what I consider to be “the fringe benefits of cancer.”

Here are the words I shared with those that attended.

In 2010, at the age of 29, I was diagnosed with Grey Zone Lymphoma, a rare blood cancer that affects less than 200 people around the world. During months of treatment and immunosuppression, I was grounded. Grounded by a disease that forced me to face my own mortality. Grounded by a disease that stole so many moments. Grounded by a disease that forced me to live in the shadows, excluded from the world I was so desperate to be a part of.

During the hundreds of hours of  ground-breaking chemotherapy, I was given the privilege of time. This borrowed time became a sacred time. It was an opportunity to take stock of what was really important and examine what it really means to be grounded. What keeps me rooted, centered, and focused, as the world around me unexpectedly shifts and changes? Cancer may have caused irreversible changes, and temporarily shackled me from my former self, but it also provided me with an opportunity to be set free, to reinvent myself, and to find a path full of meaning.

When I was diagnosed with cancer in my late 20’s, I was admittedly searching for meaning and fulfillment. I had dreamed about moving to Israel, a place I felt a deep spiritual, emotional and cultural connection to. I had wondered if I would one day fall in love and find employment in a role that nurtured all parts of me.

In the midst of filling out the application to make aliyah- and to fulfill that dream of living in Israel, I was diagnosed with cancer.

While Cancer may have physically grounded me, preventing me from world travel and exploration, I sought refuge by looking within. I was determined to learn more about  my inner world, my emotional world, and my spiritual world. As my physicality became more severely compromised, I was determined to find meaning in my suffering. My heart and mind were like a sponge waiting to be filled up. Within a few months, I had never felt more plugged in and in tune with my inner compass.

By the time I finished treatment, I had a much clearer sense of my hopes and dreams. I had a acquired a sense of fearlessness, perseverance and determination. By finding and listening to my inner compass, I changed course, seeking out a new path that I was excited to explore and take on.

In May of 2011 I finished 720 hours of chemotherapy. In October of 2011, I founded the nonprofit Twist Out Cancer which focuses on the emotional side of a cancer diagnosis through creative arts programming. We believe wholeheartedly in the fringe benefits of a cancer diagnosis. We call the fringe benefits- our “twist on cancer.” There are plenty of lessons and blessings that can accompany a cancer diagnosis- you just have to be open to experiencing them.

In November of 2011, I met my husband, my soul mate, my everything, who saw beyond the scars, beyond the baggage, beyond the diagnosis, and saw the spirit that lives within me. We were married in Israel, in May of 2013 and we gave birth to our daughter Noa in May of 2015.

My life has evolved, changed and grown exponentially since cancer.

Cancer at the time may have grounded me physically, but it has since rooted me and guided me towards decisions and choices that are fulfilling. Cancer has provided me with meaning, with direction, with purpose. It has shown me that hope, love and light can come from even the darkest of places.

Tonight we celebrate the voices and visions of so many of you here this evening. Thank you for being brave, thank you for being bold, thank you for sharing your experiences with all of us. I believe that when you share- the world opens up. And from sharing comes healing. Tonight is a testament and celebration of just that. Caren- thank you for vision, your voice and your leadership. It is because of you that we continue to share our story- and we continue to remember.

Thank you.

 

 

 

 

 

Meet Brushes with Cancer Artist Alumni – Doug Jones


MEET Doug Jones, a professional artist with a background in non-profit work. He is a veteran Brushes with Cancer participant who has been involved since its inception. Doug says he met Jenna (the founder) through a mutual college friend and “she was so lovely to be around that we connected immediately”. Specializing in Wonder Woman art, Doug’s first Brushes piece was for Noreen who had received a Wonder Woman figurine in the mail the day before she was diagnosed. Since then, Doug became a strong believer in the benefits of the program and he has not only participated in all of the Brushes events, but he also assisted with planning the first Michigan Brushes event, and is hoping to get a Detroit event on the calendar soon.

“My background is in psychology.” Jones says. “Mainly trauma and resilience-oriented therapy. I have used art therapy a lot and I have seen the benefits of art in therapeutic efforts.” The biggest benefit of the program, in his eyes, is that “people can see they are not alone.” An important aspect of healing therapy after any trauma is to find individuals who have had similar experiences. “This is a great reminder that people live through and with this all the time. A diagnosis is not a death sentence,” he emphasizes. “I think those are the two biggest benefits [of the Brushes program]: the sense of belonging and understanding that this is not a death sentence.”

Doug goes on to say that “

“My involvement with Twist has been such a journey. I wasn’t sure if Jenna was going to survive that first year, and it was such an emotional experience. I have a unique sense of joy just watching [Twist Out Cancer] grow. From participating, to being on the host committee, it has been just such an incredible journey.” Doug speaks fondly about the organization as if he is a proud father, watching his baby grow and expand and do good in the world.

To someone who is considering participating, Jones offers his own takeaway from being part of the Brushes with Cancer family: “I have seen insights – each of my people have shared things with me that they feel they can’t share with anyone. There is something about the idea that I am a stranger, and because of the purpose of the project they feel they have been able to share things with me. Those true insights into their personal experiences are the things I cherish the most. I would not have known these people, many of whom have become friends, without this program.”

 

 

Twist Out Cancer- A Movement That Moves

You are invited to attend:

Twist Out Cancer – A Movement That Moves

Friday, April 20, 2012, From 7:30-9:00 PM AT The Chicago Yoga Center

On April 20, 2012,  we invite you to join our community of tiny twisters who are determined to bend, move and Twist Out Cancer.

In December 2010, at the age of 29, Jenna Benn was diagnosed with Grey Zone Lymphoma, a rare type of blood cancer that affects less than 300 people in the United States. After 6 months of chemotherapy and invasive treatments she has finally been able to move her life from pause to play.

Becky Strauss, Registered Yoga Teacher, and pending MSW graduate at Loyola University Chicago, helped Jenna connect with her “inner warrior” through yoga, breathing, and meditation sessions throughout her treatment.

Please join Jenna and Becky in a mindful yoga practice that will calm, heal, and nurture your soul. New to yoga?  No worries…  this class is for every body, every level, everyone!

This will also be an opportunity to learn about Jenna’s latest venture Twist Out Cancer, a non-profit organization that she founded shortly after she completed treatment.

When:         Friday April 20, 2012, 7:30-9:00 pm

Where:        The Chicago Yoga Center -3047 N. Lincoln Avenue, Unit 320, Chicago

RSVP:         Click here to register online.

Suggested donation:  $20/person but all donations are welcome! All proceeds wil go directly towards furthering the Twist Out Cancer mission.

To learn more about Twist Out Cancer click here.

To learn more about Jenna and Becky’s mindful yoga practice together as she battled Cancer click here.

To learn more about Becky Strauss click here.

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The Chicago Yoga Center 3047 N Lincoln Ave #320 Chicago, IL 60657

Questions? Email jenna@twistoutcancer.org Are you having trouble registering?If so please visit our site at by clicking here or scan below.

My Cancer Companion

395 days ago, Cancer and I were climbing a mountain at 14,000 feet in Steamboat Springs Colorado.
I was sprinting, and she was laughing.
As I fought the altitude and elements, I was determined to make it to the top as quickly as possible.
As I ran- I ignored Cancer’s screams, ignored her growing presence in my neck and chest, ignored her call to war.

As I sprinted, I left my two childhood friends who trailed quietly behind. They shouted “Jenna, remember it’s always better to be slow and steady.”

I ignored their advice, and continued sprinting.

I was determined to be the first at the summit, determined to be the first at the lookout, determined to be the first to cross that finish line.

I should have listened.

I should have listened to my body that was slowly betraying me.
I should have listened to the severe pain that started in my neck and radiated down into my fingertips.
I should have listened to the fatigue that held me hostage for hours.
I should have listened to the night sweats that woke me up in the middle of the night.
I should have listened to the voice inside my head, that was increasing in volume, telling me that something was wrong, and that my body was no longer my own.

395 days later, I am back in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, climbing mountains.

This time, I no longer have a Cancer companion, who is screaming at me, slowly growing in my neck and chest, and waging a war against my cells, my blood, my life.

Instead, I am slowly, and steadily climbing these mountains, accompanied by the memory of Cancer’s life and death. As I cling to her memory, she pushes me to go farther, to work harder, to move more intentionally. She forces me to slow down, to breath deep, to look around, and fully appreciate this moment. She reminds me of the miraculous changes that can happen in a year, and how life is better when filled with gratitude. She teaches me that it is not about the sprint, but it is about the process.

And so today, as I prepare to climb yet another mountain, I will do so slowly and steadily, with the gratitude and appreciation for the process and journey that led me to this moment.