This post was originally produced for Forbes.
Still weak from her cancer treatment, 29-year-old Jenna Benn Shersher, now 36, asked her family, friends and followers to help her fight cancer. Wanting to dance but unable to do much on the dance floor, she made a quick video of herself doing the twist and challenged others to do the same. Thousands did.
That launched a movement that became a nonprofit organization she calls Twist Out Cancer.
The 501(c)(3) now has programs in Chicago, Toronto, Montreal, Ann Arbor, Philadelphia and Tel Aviv.
While cancer-free for nearly seven years, Shersher describes her experience with cancer as “horrible.” Despite having the best medical care and a strong network of family and friends, she felt “this sort of overwhelming sense of isolation and loneliness even though I had everything in my favor.”
She found blogging to be therapeutic. That’s where she posted her Twist Out Cancer challenge and found a ready audience of eager supporters.
She built the nonprofit with a goal of helping cancer survivors—including those who have just learned of their diagnosis—to feel the same connection that Shersher found with her supporters.
One survivor, Anna Swarthout (now Moschner) had the same, rare cancer that Shersher had—grey zone lymphoma. Just a few years younger than Shersher, the two shared some of the same feelings of loss and frustration having cancer while still in their prime.
With the help of Twist Out Cancer, Moschner grew a global support group with people painting works of art and baking cookies to support her.
A new program emerged from the experience: “Brushes With Cancer.” Twist Out Cancer now pairs a cancer survivor with an artist, someone they wouldn’t otherwise know. They provide space and time for them to get to know one another well. In that time, the artist creates a unique work that reflects the survivor’s journey.
“Essentially it allows for the person touched by cancer to articulate their story, come to terms with what they want to share. And then it also gives them an opportunity to see their story through someone else’s eyes. And for the artist it gives them an opportunity to use their talent and their skills to be able to help support someone that needed it,” Shersher says.
Grace Lombardo, a cancer survivor who blogs at Grancer, describes her primary role on her blog as “STAY-AT-HOME-PARENT– Zero consistency, no days off (including sick days), lots of human excrement, emotional garbage disposal, complete loss of sense of self. Managed by tiny dictators. Payment in leftover Goldfish crackers.”
Lombardo participated in Brushes with Cancer. “I was an ‘Inspiration’ at 2017’s Brushes with Cancer event which means that I was paired with an artist who made a beautiful painting of his depiction of my cancer odyssey. Now that painting hangs on the wall in my dining room which reminds me of the struggle and subsequent joy of what I went through during diagnosis, treatment and beyond.”
“TOC finds people at many different stages of their cancer odyssey. For me, I was just out of treatment when it all began so I was raw and in need of some initial healing. Telling my story to my artist and seeing what evolved out of his creative mind was a way to look back through the looking glass at my own story. Every piece of art has meaning, but this particular piece is an actual piece of me and the tapestry of my life,” she concludes.
The artwork is displayed and sold at a fundraising gala that helps keep the program running for the next beneficiary. Shersher says the organization is funded by a combination of crowdfunding, private donations, foundation grants and these galas.
As Shersher reflects on her experience, and the twisting videos people—even strangers—made to support her, she says, “There was something really powerful about video about being brought into other people’s homes and workplaces and celebrations. These are all things that I felt disconnected from and couldn’t be a part of. And so, I saw the power of video; I saw the power of connection, and I saw the power of using creativity in order to educate and advocate for what I needed.” The legacy of her cancer is her work to support other survivors in their journeys.