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'Smashing Cancer': With video project, Wisconsin man produces good out of grief

With cameras rolling, David Weiberg, a colon cancer survivor, and his son Jack took out their feelings about cancer on a piñata that they were filmed making. 1 / 2
LaTasha was just 22 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her story is one of the three award-winning public service announcements produced by the Picture Factory in Hudson, Wis. She is seen here with her family, who also are in the film, during taping at Camp St. Croix last year. (Submitted photos)2 / 2

HUDSON, Wis. -- The death of John Knudson’s father and his sister from cancer in 2006 hit the Hudson businessman hard. But it was only a matter of time before he had an idea to produce something good from his family’s loss.

The result was “Smashing Cancer,” a trio of public service announcements for the American Cancer Society to help promote the organization’s 5,000-plus annual Relay For Life events.

“It was a new experience for me losing people so close. And you go through all these emotions -- confusion, anger and finally coping. But I got kind of hung up on the anger and all I could think of was what I wanted to do to cancer -- blow it up, shoot it with a gun, just obliterate it somehow,” Knudson said.

“I figured other people felt the same and we could come up with vignettes showing what we wanted to do. But then the Boston Marathon happened and somehow blowing something up, even cancer, seemed not right. But we waited and connected with Jillian, a fellow Rotarian, and it just clicked.”

Jillian Nodland and her husband, Craig Peterschmidt, own Picture Factory Inc., a film and video production company based in Hudson, where they moved eight years ago. The couple have worked all over the country and the world, and have had one of their documentaries on the short list for an Academy Award nomination.

Knudson told Nodland about his idea, and she immediately offered to help.

“We love living in Hudson and having our business here,” Nodland said. “This seems like a great opportunity to do something local that could make a difference.”

It wasn’t long before Nodland had the “Smashing Cancer” production up and running.

The project was pro bono, but that didn’t keep some 40 filmmaking professionals from signing on to provide their talents. And when Camp St. Croix agreed to be the location for filming, it all came together.

Nodland said local businesses responded enthusiastically, providing everything from food on the set to gas cards for the crew.

“Everyone we asked was so ready and willing to do whatever they could,” she said.

Initially Knudson wasn’t going to be in a public service spot, just use his story in one. He worried that because he was “only a caregiver,” it might seem self-serving. But when the professional who was supposed to do it dropped out, Nodland and director Eric Howell persuaded him to do it himself.

It is a more serious John Knudson than many who know him are used to, but that is what he hoped would come across.

“Cancer really cost me and my family, and I had never experienced that kind of anger before,” he said. “I wanted the videos to show that and maybe give people permission to feel that anger, and maybe have that inspire them to do something about it.“

In Knudson’s video, he smashes a window that was being replaced at a River Falls school.

In another spot, LaTasha, a 22-year-old woman diagnosed with breast cancer, smashes a cake. And in the third video, production designer David Weiberg, a colon cancer survivor, and his son Jack let a piñata they made take the brunt of their feelings.

Noland said that what started as a way to promote Hudson’s Relay For Life has morphed into something different, especially with the spots winning national recognition recently.

Knudson and Nodland hope the videos will be used as part of Relay For Life events nationwide.

Said Knudson, “It’s like the saying goes, none of us can do everything, but all of us can do something.”

Online: To see the “Smashing Cancer” videos, visit

Meg Heaton

Meg Heaton has been a reporter with the Hudson Star Observer since 1990. She has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and Native American Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

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