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Jewish Journal

Cancer gives musician a new song

by Nancy Sokoler Steiner

September 4, 2008 | 1:31 am

Charlie Lustman.<br />
Photo by Jim Stein Feldt

Charlie Lustman.
Photo by Jim Stein Feldt

This time, Charlie Lustman hadn't come to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center for medical tests or to endure another round of chemotherapy. Despite having lost three-quarters of his jawbone, Lustman had come to celebrate, to inspire -- and to sing.

Lustman was at the Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute's Cancer Survivors Day program to officially launch "Made Me Nuclear," the album he wrote, arranged, produced and performed. The 12-song compilation chronicles his cancer odyssey, from receiving the diagnosis to experiencing chemotherapy-induced forgetfulness to feeling grateful to those who supported him along the way. The songs range from poignant ballads contemplating mortality to the humorous title song about being injected with a radioactive substance for a diagnostic imaging procedure: "Yes they put me through the scans/Now I'm a subatomic man/I'm a human mobile phone...."

"This is the first ever pop album about cancer," said Lustman, 43, who decided to create "Made Me Nuclear" a year to the day after receiving his diagnosis. "There is no other album which directly speaks to the cancer experience."

Lustman completed the album on March 1 -- exactly two years after being diagnosed. Next month, he will begin performing a theatrical adaptation of "Made Me Nuclear" at the Santa Monica Playhouse. The one-man show combines songs with dramatizations of Lustman's experience. He hopes to tour nationally beginning next year.

Lustman's cancer odyssey began when he noticed a small bump on his gum. His dentist couldn't identify it, nor could his periodontist, who ordered a biopsy just to be safe.

The bump turned out to be osteosarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. Lustman's specific form of the disease is diagnosed in only about 30 people a year nationwide, according to Dr. Charles Forscher, Lustman's oncologist and medical director of the Sarcoma Center at the Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute.

"I'm an extremely lucky man. Statistically, I'm supposed to have won Super Lotto three times before getting this," Lustman said. "I turned the statistic into something positive and realized that my whole purpose ... was to make a difference in the world and help other people affected by this disease or other hardship. I just had to go through a two-year journey through cancer to come out on the other side."

The journey included surgery at UCLA's Head and Neck Institute, which entailed the removal of half of his jaw. After the surgery, Lustman and his wife, Ri, who was pregnant with the couple's second child, had to wait 10 days for tests to reveal whether all the cancer had been eliminated. It hadn't, so Lustman underwent a second surgery. The couple endured another 10-day waiting period, and this time the results were clear.

Lustman then returned to Cedars-Sinai for a year of supplemental chemotherapy to destroy any remaining cancer cells. He had timed the chemo sessions around his wife's due date, but the baby arrived five weeks early. So Lustman went from having chemo in the hospital's basement to the third floor Labor and Delivery to witness the birth of his daughter, Gita.

After he completed chemotherapy, Lustman received a prosthetic mouth piece, which enables him to speak and sing.

A Santa Monica resident, Lustman grew up in Beverly Hills. He graduated from the Berklee College of Music in Boston with a degree in television and film scoring. After writing commercial music in New York, he spent multiyear stints in Denmark performing and writing songs for Scandinavian artists.

In 1998, Lustman purchased and renovated the Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax Avenue, which he operated until 2006. He had begun work on "Shaya," an album about his young son, and was planning to sell the theater in order to focus on his musical career. Cancer expedited the process.

"When you get that kind of diagnosis, you realize you might not have a lot of time on the planet," he said.

The son of a Holocaust survivor, Lustman drew parallels between his own experience and his father's.

"When I got my head shaved at the beginning, I felt my father in the camp," he said. "And when I couldn't eat anything solid for three months because they had removed most of my upper jaw ... I felt what it was like to just have soup... All the pain and all the suffering that my family endured watching me suffer.... It was a very deep suffering that I had never experienced before."

But here at the July 31st Cancer Survivors Day celebration, the suffering seems like a distant memory.

Dressed in white tennis shoes, white pants and a white shirt emblazoned with his album's purple nucleus logo, Lustman addressed the audience gathered at Cedars-Sinai -- some currently battling cancer and others who have completed treatment. "The [time] here has changed me into something different -- something better."

For more information about Charlie Lustman's album or performances, visit www.mademenuclear.com

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