By Jimmy Tomlin
It’s a well-known fact that most performers do not like to be upstaged. So nearly a decade ago, after a lung cancer diagnosis had threatened to upstage Hildy Grossman, the Boston psychologist—who also happens to be an accomplished jazz singer—decided to turn the tables on the deadly disease. The result was Upstage Lung Cancer, a nonprofit organization that uses music and musical theater to fight lung cancer. Grossman founded the organization in 2008.
“I didn’t know anything about advisory boards or fundraising or anything like that,” she says with a chuckle, “but I knew I wanted to do something. I told a friend, ‘The one thing I know I can do is put on a great show—maybe that would be a way to raise awareness and raise money for lung cancer research.’ So I got two friends to help me, and off we went.”
Off they went, indeed. Since 2011, Upstage Lung Cancer concerts have raised more than $1.8 million for the cause. Just as importantly, the organization has helped shine a bright spotlight on three primary issues—the need for more research dollars, the destigmatization of lung cancer, and the importance of early detection.
Grossman knows she was fortunate, because her lung cancer—which was detected at an early stage—happened purely by accident. After a fall on her basement stairs in 2006, she underwent an MRI to see if she had a pinched nerve in her back.
“I didn’t have a pinched nerve, but through the MRI, I was diagnosed with two very tiny Stage 1a tumors,” she says. “It was miraculous. Unfortunately, most lung cancers are found late in the game, when they’re not curable, so I was very lucky. They did surgery, and I’ve had no recurrence. I just felt so lucky—why was I spared?”
Before long, Grossman began to realize maybe she had been spared so she could help others. That realization led her to establish Upstage Lung Cancer, through which she and other musical volunteers use their lungs to make music in the name of, well, upstaging lung cancer. The organization sponsors two major concerts a year—one in the fall and one in the spring—to raise money for lung cancer research.
Some of the concerts feature the music of a musician, composer or lyricist who died of lung cancer. For example, concerts have honored the likes of Dean Martin, Rosemary Clooney, Nat King Cole, lyricist Alan Jay Lerner and songwriter Frank Loesser, all of whom died of lung cancer.
This past spring’s concert, titled “Sing Out! To Upstage Lung Cancer,” featured a number of different performing groups presenting a variety of music. The “Sing Out!” concert was in collaboration with the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Proceeds benefit the Young Lung Genome Project, a study looking at the genomic profiles of young people diagnosed with lung cancer.
This fall’s concert, held in collaboration with another nonprofit, the LUNGevity Foundation, features Ella Fitzgerald, First Lady of Song. The concert will be held at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, in the Charles Mosesian Theater, Watertown, MA. (For details about upcoming concerts, including ticket pricing, visit Upstagelungcancer.org.)
“Everybody is a professional,” Grossman says. “We have an award-winning director, singers and actors, and our choreographer. They’ve all won major theatrical awards, and they’re all well-known in the Boston area. And all of them have been touched by lung cancer in one way or another, either in their family or a friend, so they all donate their time and talent and generosity.”
The organization also hosts a series of house concerts, which are small, intimate musical performances held in people’s homes.
“People open up their homes and invite friends over,” Grossman explains. “We’ll bring in the music and have a reception, and we always get an expert to come and talk a little bit about lung cancer.”
The nonprofit’s newest event is one called Yoga To Upstage Lung Cancer, a 75-minute yoga class—again, with uplifting music—taught by lung cancer survivor Janet McCarthy, who also serves on the organization’s board of directors.
“This is something that really means a lot to me,” says McCarthy, who is not only a lung cancer survivor, but whose husband and sister-in-law both died of lung cancer. “When I heard about Upstage Lung Cancer, I knew it was something I wanted to help with and be a part of.”
Grossman says people such as McCarthy, who have given their time and talents to Upstage Lung Cancer, have been a blessing.
“Nobody would think having lung cancer is a blessing,” she says, “but it’s really enriched my life through the people I’ve met and the extraordinary courage I’ve witnessed. I’m very grateful for these extraordinary people who have come into my life.”