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Entertainer Charlie Lustman doesn’t sing the standards and his stage is about as far as you can get from a glitzy rock show with fancy lights and flashy pyrotechnics.
But Lustman’s shows are in fact larger-than-life and often very personal.
“I had a three-year-old child and a pregnant wife,” Lustman said while strumming his six-string and holding court in Wellspan’s Ephrata Cancer Center “I said I’m sticking around. So go ahead, shoot me, hit me, stick me, radiate me…I don’t care what you do, just keep me on this planet.”
A cancer survivor, who travels the country with his guitar, Lustman’s quirky, funny songs, often discuss some of the most unpleasant medical procedures such as radiation and chemotherapy.
His cheery personality resonated with patients such as Ruth Ryner of Ephrata, Beverly Merkey of Stevens, and Lilliana Finazzo.
He directed each song to particular patients.
For instance he sang “Somebody New” to Ruth who acknowledged how cancer forces a patient to adapt and become something stronger than perhaps they dreamed they could.
“In another month or two they’re going to be checking me to see if it’s all clear, so I’m hoping, I’m hoping,” Ruth said smiling.
Lustman suggested that Ruth — who comes to the center every other week for treatment for lung cancer diagnosed in February 2014 — try mind exercises to “visualize” the future.
“There’s something about the power of the mind, it works. I know it’s hard but visualize to see what it’s like to be all clear,” he said. “Think of what you want to do, where do you want to be, who you want to be with…see it all in your mind.”
“I want to be with my four grandchildren,” Ruth said.
“If you can see it you can be it,” he said.
She proudly shared how her granddaughters Kaya and Eliana participated on her behalf in the 24-hour Relay for Life event immediately after she was diagnosed with cancer.
Lustman, 50, ran a movie theater in Los Angeles which closed about the same time he was diagnosed with a rare bone cancer in 2006. After doctors removed half of his jaw and fitted him with a prosthetic, it might have been reasonable for the lifelong musician to simply check out.
But something bubbled up from within him to fight. Not only did he win, he continues to help other cancer patients fight their battles by recreating his experiences into something positive that he’s shared at cancer centers all over the country.
Lustman wrote a musical called “Made Me Nuclear,” a one-man show about his illness and surgery which he’s taken on national tours. He borrowed from the musical while visiting at Wellspan on Dec. 13.
He then visited with Beverly, who wore the identical pink and white hat she was knitting for other patients. Lustman broke out in a song about living with chemotherapy
“Sorry I forgot about the chicken cooking on the range and I almost burned the kitchen down if you had not come back to town,” he sang directly to Beverly, who has had reoccurring battles with cancer and is currently battling a stage-four diagnosis. “It’s chemo-brain, chemo-brain, can’t explain the things I do because I’ve had a dose or two, or three, or four…”
In her discussion with Lustman, Beverly, who says she is stable, said she gets frustrated when people think she cannot accomplish daily tasks “because she her cancer.”
“I’m going to tell people that some of the diseases they have are just as bad as cancer,” she said.
Lustman visited WellSpan’s four cancer centers this month, including the Ephrata Cancer Center, as part of his Musical Hope Campaign. Cindy Stauffer, Wellspan spokeswoman, said his visits were inspiring.
“Charlie brought his message of humor, hope, and empowerment to our patients and staff. His music made people dance in their seats, cry, and reflect on their journey.”
Patrick Burns is a staff writer for The Ephrata Review. He welcomes your questions and comments and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 721-4455