Dealing with cancer, one painting at a time

Josh Weinstein will never forget March 5, 2010. Then a precocious high school sophomore, he was living in Irvine with his mother, Talya, and had been suffering for a few months from a mysterious set of symptoms  — coughing fits, exhaustion and occasional dizzy spells. He’d gone to the doctor to get checked out, and on that date, got the diagnosis.

Weinstein had Hodgkins lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system, and doctors said swift surgery would be necessary to save his life. Talya, upon viewing the

X-rays, passed out on the hospital floor.

“The Long Road to Freedom” by Josh Weinstein

Now 18 and a freshman at U.C. Berkeley, Weinstein — who as a toddler came to the U.S. from Israel with his mother — thinks back on the past two years with the studied self-awareness of someone who has had to grow up a bit faster than he planned.

Seated on the couch in the small North Berkeley apartment he and his mother share, Weinstein is on the rebound following surgery and months of debilitating chemotherapy and radiation. His light brown hair, which had fallen out, is healthy and full. His cancer has been in remission for roughly a year.

In the room with him are two of the most important factors in his recovery. There’s his mother, who quit her counseling job in Southern California and moved to Palo Alto with her son after the two determined Stanford’s oncology department was the best equipped to treat Weinstein’s cancer. And then there’s his art.

While undergoing sometimes 12-hour-long days of chemotherapy, Weinstein (who says he dabbled in art as a child but never took it seriously) began to paint and draw. Some of his work — full of chaotic, vibrant color combinations and anxious, tired eyes — depicts the fear and uncertainty of being ill. An ink drawing, a detailed hand partially composed of metal and wires, reflects Weinstein’s frustration at being hooked up to machines all the time.

Others — like the one of a small, lone figure in black, venturing out toward a rich, otherworldly landscape — are about moving on.

“Painting was a way for me to relax, to extract some of these negative emotions: the anger, the ‘why me?’ kind of feelings,” says Weinstein, who plans to major in molecular and cell biology (he wants to be a doctor) and minor in art.

During treatments, Talya would bring in music — Josh prefers modern opera — and watch her son paint. Doctors got to know his room as the “art studio,” she says, and would stop by their breaks in to check out new pieces.

Josh Weinstein with his mom, Talya. photos/emma silvers

Now, some of these paintings, in addition to others he has created since then, are on exhibit at Berkeley’s Expressions Gallery, along with a group show featuring local artists ages 16 to 25. It is titled “Celebration, Excitement & Joy.” Last month, Weinstein had a solo exhibit, titled “Painting Through Cancer and Beyond,” at Berkeley jewelry gallery Zaver & Mor. He also sells his work (including T-shirts) online, at  http://www.weinsteinart.org.

Weinstein’s artwork has been recognized in the medical community as well — in December of last year, he and his mother were invited to the American Society of Hematology’s annual meeting in San Diego, where a pharmaceutical group turned a painting of Weinstein’s called “Navigating the Storm” into an interactive mosaic on which cancer patients, family members and caregivers could write inspirational messages.

Those who know him — including the doctors and other adults he has met over the last year and a half — say the teen’s obvious maturity, curiosity and compassion have made him a pleasure to work with. Dr. Michael Link, who treated Weinstein at Stanford’s oncology center, forged a particularly special connection with the teen.

“He’s an incredibly talented, sophisticated young man,” says Link. “He was challenging and inquisitive in the best possible way: He wants to understand everything, if he’s going to be a doctor himself.” Weinstein still sees Link, both as a patient — for check-ins and follow-up treatment — and as a mentor. In recent months, Weinstein has been been shadowing the physician on his hospital rounds.

Link, who speaks Hebrew, also connected with the family over their Israeli heritage, and the doctor’s wife was so taken with Weinstein’s art that the couple purchased one of his paintings. It now hangs in Link’s living room. “I love what I do,” says the doctor, “but it’s kids like Josh that keep me motivated as a physician.”

In addition to the medical team at Stanford, Talya has glowing praise for the folks at Chai Lifeline, a national Jewish nonprofit that helps young children, teens and families dealing with cancer and other serious diagnoses. The organization helped the duo throughout Weinstein’s illness, having Shabbat meals delivered to them at the hospital and arranging for financial assistance that allowed them to relocate to Palo Alto for treatment. “I’m a single mom, and I stopped working after Josh’s diagnosis to help him — there’s no way I could have done all that on my own,” says Talya.

Josh Weinstein at home with his artwork.

“I’m inspired by him,” says Randi Grossman, director of Chai Lifeline’s West Coast office. “The way he conducted himself throughout these trials is absolutely extraordinary.” In a video about the nonprofit’s art therapy program, the organization features Weinstein speaking about how art helped to ease his mind.

The mother-son duo have become passionate patient advocates. Talya, a therapist and life coach, is writing a book about the battle — she was “stunned” by the dearth of personal accounts available when she tried to read up on her son’s illness. “Part of my goal is to bring attention to pediatric cancer, the fact that it exists and that it doesn’t have to be a death sentence, and that it can be handled with grace,” she says.

Josh has spoken about his experience at a number of schools, and saw firsthand the impact he could have. 

“There was one time when a little girl came up to me after the assembly and started talking about her father dealing with cancer,” he says. “This was something her teachers didn’t even really know about, but she felt like it was a good space to share in, which made me feel good.”

In addition to those in the medical and arts communities he’s connected with, Weinstein has recently been making friends at U.C. Berkeley’s Hillel, attending Wednesday evening barbecues and Shabbat dinners. As he grows as an artist, he’s also hoping to begin showing his work from his home studio in Berkeley more often, and is interested in speaking to more groups about overcoming adversity.

“People have been so welcoming, so kind here,” he says. “I’m taking everything one day at a time, just being thankful every day.”

Josh Weinstein’s
paintings are on exhibit through Jan. 11, 2013 at Expressions Gallery, 2035 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. http://www.expressionsgallery.org. Contact Talya at weinstein4t@aol.com

Emma Silvers