Mardi Kaplan

By Ellen Braunstein, Special to Chicago Jewish News

Mardi Kaplan only knows how to be positive. As a breast cancer survivor, she says she has her down days, “but for the most part I’m walking this path with an optimistic attitude, taking it one day at a time,” she said.

Along her journey, she met artist Rebecca Roin through an organization called Twist Out Cancer – A Support Community, formed in Chicago in 2011. The now global nonprofit provides psychological and social support to individuals touched by cancer using the creative arts as a mechanism for healing.

Kaplan was paired with Roin in its signature six-month program, Brushes with Cancer. This unique celebration of survival matches artists with survivors, during which the survivor serves as inspiration for artwork.

Roin has been a studio artist and art teacher whose father and aunt both have brain cancer. Kaplan became the inspiration for a piece of artwork that will be exhibited at the already sold-out Sixth Annual Brushes with Cancer Art Exhibition and Gala in Chicago on Nov. 3.

“From the minute I met her,” Roin said of Kaplan, “I felt it was going to be really easy to communicate, and because Mardi is so upbeat and willing to do and experience fun things, I wanted to approach our time by experiencing things together like going to an art museum, having lunch, dinner, going to a craft fair, taking walks and showing her my art studio.”

” The mission of Twist Out Cancer was compelling to Rebecca because the idea of creating art through human connection has always resonated with her. She considered being matched with Mardi as a gift.

Kaplan said that she has become friends immediately with Roin, her artist. “I can’t wait to see the final piece. I also feel very connected with the Twist Out Cancer/Brushes with Cancer community and am very grateful to have found this organization.”

Over the last six years, Brushes with Cancer has grown from a local Chicago-based art program into an international movement. “We were recently able to bring this transformative program to Tel Aviv, Toronto and Montreal,” said Jenna Benn Shersher, the founder and executive director of Twist Out Cancer and herself a cancer survivor. “These diverse cities not only indicated a need for psychosocial services, but they also provided a vibrant and eclectic artistic community that stood up to the challenge. We are so excited to bring Brushes with Cancer back to Chicago, where we have been able to create unexpected intersections between individuals touched by cancer and artists thanks to the generosity of the Chicago community.”

Shersher is the former associate regional director of the Anti-Defamation League in Chicago. The earliest step in creating Twist Out Cancer occurred in 2011, six months after she finished cancer treatment for a rare blood disorder. Instead of surrendering to cancer, she was determined to find meaning in her suffering. “It was a slow build,” she said, having started writing a blog about her experience. Early on in her treatment, she put out a challenge through video, asking people to do “the twist,” as released by Chubby Checker, as a way to “Twist Out Cancer.” Within days, people from all over the world responded to her video by posting videos of them “twisting out cancer” too. The “twist” soon became a huge collection of videos, posts, songs, pictures and more that cancer survivors shared to encourage others in their fight against an agonizing disease.

From there, Shersher figured out creative ways to leverage social media to process her experience and in turn create a community that became invested in her fight. “The more I shared with the world, the more I felt the world open up. There were a lot of issues that I was facing as a young adult with a rare type of cancer, issues that weren’t being talked about. I found the best way to manage the situation was throughout writing and different art forms.”

Brushes with Cancer started with a Facebook post calling on artists. From the first 15-piece show, “we’ve had over 4,000 people participate with the help of social media and community helping to get the word out. It’s for anyone that identifies with having been touched by cancer and survived this life changing experience.”

As inspiration, Shersher was connected with artist Aviad Arik Herman, a Sweden-based fashion and costume designer. “I was able to see what it was like to tell a story and have it interpreted through art and have people learn about my story and experience,” Shersher said.

At the upcoming gala, 30 works of art will be on display, created and inspired by cancer survivors.  Musicians and performers will entertain including Ava Blaser of Chicago, a 10-year-old cancer survivor and dancer. Another native Chicagoan, Sam Barsh, will perform with a jazz quartet. His father was in treatment for cancer and Barsh was his caregiver.

The keynote speaker for this year’s gala is Nancy Browick, a world-renowned photographer and author who recently published “The Family Import” which explores her parents’ intimate journey as they underwent parallel treatments for stage-four cancer.

Recently, current and past survivors who served as inspiration for artwork were invited to an art therapy session that allowed cancer patients to indulge in relaxed and mindful art making that encourages self-awareness into their personal experience with cancer.

Kaplan has been walking her path with an optimistic attitude since her diagnosis with breast cancer in December 2017. “I’ve chosen to fight this head-on. I essentially made it my job to beat cancer. I realize more than ever that you never know what a stranger is going through. I’ve always been a compassionate and empathetic person, but those traits have become stronger than ever.”

For more information about Twist Out Cancer, visit

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