Art Changes Lives for Cancer Survivors
Twist Out Cancer Founder Jenna Benn Shersher Shares Update Following Her 10-Year Cancer-versary
Devin: As you think about all you’ve accomplished, what would you identify as the superpower you have deployed in this work that has made it all possible?
Jenna: Well, I don’t think it’s a superpower because everyone has it. I just chose to use it. So I’m not like some superhero here that was born a certain way. I just chose to do this. So, you know, I think because I was diagnosed at 29 with a rare form of cancer called Gray Zone Lymphoma. I had the whole world ahead of me, and all of a sudden, my life was put on pause. And I think because it came out of the blue and was almost so outrageous that I chose to be vulnerable about my experience. I was open. I was honest. I was raw. I was unapologetic. And I think, in turn, because I was so open about it, people felt comfortable opening up to me. And really, that’s what Twist is all about. It’s about empowering people to come forward with their story so that they can process it and put it out there in the world.
The nonprofit Twist Out Cancer began on little more than a whim when founder Jenna Benn Shersher, enduring her own cancer battle, turned her laptop camera on to record and share herself dancing the twist, encouraging others to join her.
From this courageous, vulnerable beginning, a thriving international nonprofit has grown to touch countless cancer survivors, their families and friends.
A program called Brushes with Cancer is now the nonprofit’s primary focus. Jenna describes it:
We match artists with people that have been touched by cancer and we call them our inspirations. And over six months, the inspiration has an opportunity to connect with their artist, share their story, and really process what they've gone through, what they're going through, what their fears are, what their dreams are, all of it. And in that period of time of opening up and making themselves vulnerable, they then forge this connection with the artist. And the artist creates a work of art that's reflective of that journey and that at the end of the program, we essentially have a large art exhibition or gala.
The art is serious. “We have some unbelievable artists that have works in the MoMA and the Tate, you know, like crazy level art,” Jenna says. “But then we also have students that are unbelievably talented that are in it for the right reason.”
Jenna emphasizes the process over the piece. “As much as the art is important, the most important part is the connection between the artist and inspiration.”
“We have a pretty intensive application process for both the artist and inspiration to make sure that they’re in it for the right reasons,” she says. “We want to make sure the inspiration is emotionally prepared for this type of undertaking and that the artist is as well, and that they’re doing it not just to promote their name, but they’re doing it to support someone who is either enduring or has endured a health crisis.”
“I participated again this year to mark my ten-year cancer-versary,” Jenna says. Paired with artist Kate Van Doren, an art therapist, Jenna got more than she anticipated from the experience.
“I found, ten years later, after my cancer experience, I still had a ton of stuff to process,” she says. “It’s not like I put it on hold and put it under the rug. I’m very much involved in therapy and all the things to continue to nurture my survivorship and to be the best person that I can. And I still found that there was so much left to uncover and to explore and to challenge and to think about and to process.” Jenna credits Kate for much of the value she got from the experience.
During covid, the gala gave way to virtual events to reveal the artists’ work.
“We did our reveal on Instagram, which was good for the organization. But I was super vulnerable. I fell apart. I mean, it was so overwhelming for me to see someone else’s depiction of my story and to see what resonated for them. It can be powerful no matter where you’re at in your journey with cancer.”
After the reveals, the artists donate their work to the nonprofit, which auctions it to fund the program, allowing another cohort to participate. Jenna says inspiring things sometimes happen; an anonymous buyer will donate the art to the inspiration.
Seeing the value of art as part of the healing process, Jenna has incorporated some art therapy into the Twist Out Cancer programs. She says Jackie Carmody, an experienced art therapist, helped design a replicable program for the organization.
While Jenna doesn’t see her core strength as a superpower (few of the people we profile do), she uses her courage and vulnerability to change the world for cancer survivors and their families.
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How to Develop Courage and Vulnerability As Superpowers
The twist started with me in my room. I had no hair. I was immunocompromised. I was underweight. I was—my sense of balance was off.
I put up a video of myself doing the twist and said, who's joining me on the dance floor?
This was not thought through. There was no high tech camera. It was me on my laptop and I posted it on Facebook. It was really a desperate call to action to say, I want to see who you are. I want to know who's following along because I know you're there, but I want to see you.
And so it was just a spark that I put out into the world. And as a result, look at what has happened.
That courageous moment came about for complicated reasons. “I was able to take a lot of risks because I didn’t feel like I had a lot to lose. And that was totally informed by my cancer experience,” Jenna says.
Asked about how she’d coach others to develop her superpower, Jenna cautioned, “I can’t tell everyone to go out and act like you have nothing to lose. That’s something that you either feel or you don’t feel.”
“What has helped me along the way is that I am not scared to know what I don’t know and to ask for help,” she says. This observation reveals at least some of the power of vulnerability. Without the courage to acknowledge a need for help, it is challenging to get that help.
Jenna demonstrates this vulnerability regularly. She related how she’d scheduled time with a new acquaintance on the day of our conversation to ask for help in an area where Jenna knew she needed guidance.
“I am very quick to admit when I’m out of my comfort zone,” Jenna says. “That’s also vulnerability. It’s admitting what you don’t know. Sometimes, people feel like you have to have it all together to launch something. And it’s so not true.”
She’s living proof that you don’t have to have it all together to do something great in the world of doing good. By following Jenna’s example and her counsel, you can make courage and vulnerability your superpowers for good.