When Charlie Lustman lost part of his jaw to a rare malignant bone tumor, he wasn’t deterred in his career as a musician. Instead he was inspired to share his story with others and promote optimistic living by doing what he knows best — singing.
Lustman, a Berklee College of Music graduate, came to Ann Arbor from his home of Maui, Hawaii for four performances, the largest being a concert for National Cancer Survivor Day held on June 6 at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Cancer. An audience of about 400 patients, survivors and members of the campus community came to listen to his songs and messages of hope in overcoming difficult situations.
“When I come to a town, my goal is to spread a message of hope throughout the entire community,” Lustman said.
The concert was sponsored by PICASSO 3 Trial, a clinical trial group that works specifically on soft-tissue cancer at the University. During his performance, Lustman told the audience that while his cancer was rare, so too was the experience of ultimately overcoming the illness, comparing his life’s events to those of a lightning strike or lottery ticket.
“One in four hundred million people supposedly get this, at least reported, each year,” Lustman said. “… That’s like three super lottos. Nine times hit by lightening before you get that. But I got a really special lotto ticket … I got to live, I got to see my children grow up, and I get to sing for the clinical trial staff at the University.”
Lustman brought the stage to life during the lunchtime concert, and behind the acoustic songs from his album Make Me Nuclear — in which he sings the story of his battle with cancer, starting with the diagnosis and going through to recovery — is his initiative to detract from the fear of death and show others the importance of envisioning a positive outcome.
Lustman used humor in his lyrics to try to instill a playful, light mood among the crowd that consisted largely of individuals who spend their careers trying to find a cure for cancer, such as the soft-tissue cancer that Lustman survived. He added that remembering the carefree, simple sentiments of childhood is instrumental in overcoming difficult situations.
“When we’re kids, we’re having so much fun,” Lustman said. “We’re just dancing and painting and drawing and singing. We’re just being and letting go.”
Lustman said a book called “Getting Well Again” by Doctor O. Carl Simonton led him to develop his personal mantra for overcoming negative situations — allowing yourself to experience rock bottom and then to “flip it” by positively visualizing the future.
“Visualization helped save my life and many people who’ve gone through cancer with me,” Lustman said. “Visualizing being healthy, visualizing you want to live on an island in the middle of the Pacific and raise your children, visualizing ‘here I am with tubes in my arm getting chemo, but one day I’m going to stand in front of thousands of people and sing songs about this.’”
He added that maintaining an optimistic mind frame eventually led him to overcome cancer and experience life in a new way that provided him with an array of opportunities.
“I was the keynote at the Oncology Nursing Society in Boston last month, which I saw five years ago hooked up by wires,” Lustman said. “Visualization is very powerful.”
Lustman said his message is universal and important for all people, including both individuals fighting cancer and those who are completely healthy.
“It’s nice that this message can hit both sides,” Lustman said. “It’s great. I kind of feel like I’m selling love, you know? You can’t lose when you sell love.”
“Even people who are blocked in hate, you can break through with love,” he added. “That’s why the Pope went to see the guy who shot him many years ago. Someone shot the Pope, so he went to the jail and blessed the man. What’re you going to do?”
His message resonated with audience member Lisa Cummins, cancer survivor of 12-years, who said she was inspired after hearing Lustman perform.
“I was kind of having a crummy day,” Cummins said. “Some bad things happened last week and I was feeling a little bit down today … I came to the concert and my spirits were completely lifted. It made me really stop and think that I’m lucky I’m here.”
As part of his performance, Lustman wrote and played a special song titled “Hey, Investigator” specifically for the clinical trial staff members that he introduced by emphasizing the importance of maintaining an optimistic attitude during difficult times.
“If you’re not happy, you’re not going to find the cure,” Lustman said. “And that’s why I’m sharing this with you today, because it works.”
Martha Latch, Community Outreach Coordinator at the University’s Comprehensive Cancer, said she was surprised that members of the clinical trial staff stayed to watch the performance amid their busy schedules, adding that this emphasizes the effect Lustman had on the members.
“People say all kinds of things, you know like ‘I’ll stop in but I’ve got work to do,’” Latch said. “And that’s why they sat (in the wings) — they were going to leave, but they did not leave. They were mesmerized.”