A Survivor Uses Her Vocals to Raise Money for Cutting-Edge Lung Cancer Research

Katie Kosko

Music has a way of deeply touching people’s emotions. Songs can stir memories that create joy, loss, happiness and heartbreak. Emotions like these are only part of the mix of feelings that accompany a lung cancer diagnosis. For Hildy Grossman, music has the ability to touch a person’s highest emotional and spiritual level. Because of this, music can be healing, comforting, therapeutic, a means of hope.

Grossman, a clinical psychologist and professional singer, discovered her lung cancer by accident — one she considers fortunate. She fell down the basement stairs and hurt her wrist, elbow and ankle. A visit to several doctors and an MRI later revealed two spots on her right lung. A biopsy confirmed it was cancer.

“I think we all know that life is finite, but none of us believe it,” Grossman said. “We don’t live in a way that we believe that we are ever going to stop existing. The first words that came to my mind when I heard the diagnosis of lung cancer were, ‘Now? Now? No, it can’t be now. I’m not ready to die now.’”

She added, “Eleven years ago there wasn’t much to be hopeful about. Today, there is much more reason for hope, with new treatments every year.”

Grossman was treated with surgery and credits finding her cancer early for not having to undergo any further procedures.

She turned her passion for music and performing arts into a tool to raise awareness, invest in early detection research and destigmatize the disease, by founding Upstage Lung Cancer (ULC) in 2008. It is the only lung cancer organization that uses music and the performing arts to accomplish these goals.

Since 2011, ULC has funded more than $2 million in early detection research grants through money raised from ticket sales for its performances. The organization is run by volunteers made up of lung cancer survivors, family and friends, physicians and members of the Arts community. 

“For me, music is the highest level of being a human being,” she said. “I feel like it’s an extraordinary part of being a human being. To be able to create lyrics and new music or to listen to music at a concert hall or on a CD is transformative.”

ULC puts on two big performances each year, one in spring and fall, in the Boston area. The organization also produces smaller, more intimate concerts in New York City; Washington, D.C.; and throughout New England and hopes to expand to Chicago this year. In 2018, grants were awarded to doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and the Koch Institute at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Past grants have been awarded to investigators at Stanford University, Northwestern University and the University of Maryland.

“We are looking for the most cutting-edge early detection research, so that ultimately it will be possible to detect lung cancer when it is most timely. That’s when the difference between life and death is dramatic,” Grossman said.

On April 5, Grossman’s jazz group, The Follen Angels, will take center stage for ULC’s fifth annual spring concert, “I Got Rhythm: In Love with Gershwin and Cole Porter,” in collaboration with the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation. Money raised from this event will benefit the Addario Lung Cancer Medical Institute’s Genomics of Young Lung Cancer study of young people with lung cancer. Jordan Rich, Boston’s own WBZ AM 1030 radio luminary, will host and Northeastern University’s a cappella group, Unisons, will be guest performers.

Following in October, ULC’s 10th annual fall concert will combine singing and choreography by Boston-area performers. Past performances have featured the music of legends Nat King Cole, Rosemary Clooney and Dean Martin, all of whom lost their lives to lung cancer.

Grossman recalled an email that she received after a ULC concert at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center in Burlington. “I wanted to take a moment and thank you and The Follen Angels for such a wonderful evening of music and fun,” stated the email. “On a personal note, when my father was on hospice, I would play Peggy Lee songs and Big Band music. The music spoke to his heart where words could no longer go.”

“That said it all for me. Music affirms being alive,” Grossman said.
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