By: Jenny Buntman Indig
Photo Credit: Robin O’Neill
For every person touched by cancer, there is a before and after cancer moment – when those three words, “you have cancer” change life forever. For my family, a doctor delivered a diagnosis of stage four kidney cancer to my otherwise healthy, vibrant 59-year-old mother, Shelley, in early December 2010. She lived for fourteen months and in that time never came to terms with her diagnosis. Instead, she tried as best she could to just keep living.
A few weeks after the diagnosis, before any treatment plans were made our immediate family – my mom, dad, sister, brother and my husband flew to our family home in British Columbia. It was my family’s happy place. My husband and I were married there, and we arranged for our wedding photographer to come back during our trip to document the moment.
We played touch football in the snow, cracked a bottle of champagne and just enjoyed life the best we could that day. While my mom’s cancer diagnosis was clearly on all our minds, what the photos captured were the closeness we shared, our quirky family dynamics and the unrelenting love between our parents.
In one final photo, we are all sitting on lawn chairs, on a long dock covered in snow, over a frozen lake, facing Mt. Currie with our backs to the camera, toasting champagne flutes to the setting sun. Our toast to life.
That photo was the last time we were all together, when my mom looked like herself, when we could live if just for one afternoon without the burden of cancer and how it was about to change all of our lives.
We had kept my mom’s diagnosis quiet in the beginning with the hope that she could remain seeing patients in her private psychotherapy practice she started with my dad in our small town outside Chicago. My sister, brother and I were asked to keep the news to ourselves. At the time, it felt like a huge weight to carry without the support from friends and extended family, but we trusted and respected our parents’ decision.
By February, my mom ended her practice as a psychologist opting for an experimental treatment called interleukin. I was lucky I could take time off from my job in New York and fly to Chicago to be there to help care for my mom along with my sister, brother, and dad. She spent three weeks in the hospital, barely able to sit up in bed. We took shifts staying with her overnight covering her in warm blankets when she got the rigors and holding buckets when she got sick. We passed the days listening to music, playing Bananagrams but mostly my mom looked to us for distraction.
A few floors down at the Lurie Cancer Center at Northwestern Hospital, Jenna Benn, a childhood friend, was being treated for a rare form of cancer, Grey Zone Lymphoma. It had been years since I saw Jenna, but we recognized each other immediately sitting in the waiting room. We exchanged a tearful silent embrace; no words were needed to explain why we were there. Jenna was in for an even longer road with her treatment and had transformed her hospital room into a version of what I imagined her college dorm room looked like. The walls were covered in brightly colored artwork, a selection of woven scarves strewn across her bed and Jenna with her warm smile despite how awful she was feeling never without bright red or pink lipstick.
As my mom turned inward in her own suffering and facing her cancer diagnosis Jenna turned outward. Isolated in her hospital room going through treatment in her mid 20s, Jenna’s creativity and zest for life gave birth to an entire community she built leveraging social media from her hospital room. Within a year, Jenna founded a nonprofit organization called Twist Out Cancer providing psychosocial support to individuals touched by cancer through creative arts programming. The organization was founded on the principle that when you share, the world opens up.
Maybe it was my mom’s training as a psychologist that caused her to compartmentalize her own pain and cancer experience. She was the type of person who was always there for everyone else; her patients, her friends, my family and she continued to play that role even when she was sick. I never understood why she refused to seek counsel from a therapist after she was diagnosed and never found a community to talk to about her own cancer experience. I imagine my dad, who she had an intensely close relationship with (who is also a psychologist) became the sole person she shared her true feelings and fears with.
Even after we knew treatment had failed, my mom’s wish was that we all keep on living. Back working in New York City my daily phone calls with her soon became consumed with my pregnancy. My husband and I had started trying within weeks of finding out about my mom’s diagnosis with the hope that she would survive long enough to become a Grandma.
My mom miraculously flew alone to New York to be with me and my husband in the delivery room where she stayed for eight hours straight through my labor, determined to witness the birth of her first grandchild. When my daughter Sylvie Rose was born my mom said it was one the happiest days of her life. The day we brought Sylvie home from the hospital my mom was admitted to the emergency room at Mount Sinai where she had surgery to remove a hidden tumor in her intestine. She ended up staying in New York with me for an extra three weeks while she recovered. I remember her snuggles with Sylvie were the only thing that brought smiles to her face and momentarily eased her own pain.
With enough strength my mom returned to Chicago where she devoted herself to a new art project – a Sylvie Rose painting with all the letters in the shapes of different animals. She checked out animal illustration books from the library to research and poured herself entirely into finishing the work. Art had always been a creative outlet for my mom and leaving something behind for Sylvie became her inspiration.
In those final weeks of her life, my mom refused to believe that she was dying, that she might be losing her battle with cancer. She never spoke to my sister, brother or I about how she was feeling or what it meant that she was nearing the end of her life, it almost felt like she could only survive believing she would keep on living.
She passed away peacefully in her bed with my dad fourteen months after her diagnosis. I like to imagine that the two of them talked, that she told him how she was really feeling and how scared she was to leave us. Knowing their relationship, I think she did but I will always wonder if she would have suffered less if she hadn’t kept all that to herself. If she had found a way to turn her cancer story, her suffering outward, to lift the burden of carrying it all on herself. If she had somehow found a community that could offer her support.
BMC Cancer published a study concluding that, “art therapy improved the emotional distress, depression, anxiety and pain among all cancer patients, at all time points…simple, effective, therapeutic interventions, to aid in distress relief in cancer patients, is important for ensuring clinical efficacy of treatment and improved quality of life” (Elimimian, Elson, et al., 2020).
Eleven years after running into Jenna at the Lurie Center in Chicago she is still leading Twist out Cancer. I am in awe of what Jenna has achieved and know that my mom would be too. Over 200,000 people who have had the same “before and after cancer experience” have benefited from the organization and its signature program Brushes with Cancer. I only wish that it had existed when my mom needed it the most. I will always wonder if it could have somehow improved her quality of life or even helped prolong it.
I continue to honor my mom’s incredible life, her creativity, her art, her career as a therapist and the thousands of people she touched in her own life by choosing to give to Twist. I give so that others can benefit from its programs, to share their own stories, to hopefully find comfort and healing through art and community. I hope that you’ll consider joining me in supporting Twist this Mother’s Day.
I look back on the fourteen months my mom lived with cancer and am so grateful for those ten days in British Columbia and for the image that so perfectly tells the story of our family, always ready to toast to life.
Jenny Buntman Indig resides in New York with her family. She works in philanthropy and serves on the Executive Board of Twist Out Cancer. She is the 2023 Brushes with Cancer Honoree.