A jaw full of song


Charlie Lustman is glad he got cancer.

A survivor of a rare cancer called osteosarcoma, Lustman grinned as he sang and played a brightly colored guitar for cancer patients at UNC Hospitals on Wednesday.

The UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center was Lustman’s latest stop on his two-year tour of cancer centers around the country.

“It was really amazing to see him with patients and staff and families,” said Dianne Shaw, deputy director of communications for the center. “I saw laughter. I saw tears. I saw smiles.”

Lustman sings original songs with titles such as “Chemo Brain” and “Made Me Nuclear” in order to cheer up cancer patients and show them that he empathizes with their battles against cancer, he said.

His own personal story of survival is also an inspiration.

Six years ago today, Lustman was diagnosed with a type of cancer in the jaw that only one in 400 million people get, he said.

Surgeons had to saw off his entire upper jaw. Lustman lived without it for a year, unable to eat solid foods, while he underwent chemotherapy treatment.

He then received a custom-fit prosthetic jaw. Adjusting to the new apparatus was difficult, he said.

“Meeting my jaw for the first time was like, hello,” he said. “It was odd and weird and very uncomfortable.”

But despite all these challenges, Lustman managed to maintain a positive outlook.

“I’m glad it was me,” he said. “Cancer came to the right guy.”

Before his diagnosis, Lustman said he ran the only silent cinema in the country, which he was forced to sell because of his medical treatments.

Now a pharmaceutical company sponsors him to tour the country.

“I sing better than I did before,” he said. “What doesn’t kill you makes you sing better.”

After his diagnosis, Lustman decided to turn his lifelong passion for music into a full-time career.

“The cancer experience is my inspiration,” he said. “That and the Beatles.”

Hospital staff said Lustman really makes a difference.

“It was changing these people’s day and life,” said Alan Grier, a hospital volunteer. “It fundamentally changed everybody (he) connected with, including us.”

Loretta Muss, coordinator of the N.C. Cancer Hospital patient advisory board, said Lustman was full of energy and responded well to individual patients.

“He makes the songs for the situation. He can assess very quickly how they’re going to respond.”

Lustman said his songs are meant to give patients hope.

“It’s not me,” he said. “I’m just the messenger.”

Lustman said he wants his mission to carry him far into the future.

“When there’s a cure for cancer, maybe I’ll take a couple weeks off.”

Contact the University Editorat university@dailytarheel.com.

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