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Upstaging Lung Cancer: A Cancer Survivor’s Mission to Give Back

L-R: Lecia Sequist, MD, MPH, and Hildy Grossman, founder of Upstage Lung Cancer. This year, Dr. Sequist was the recipient of the Upstage Lung Cancer “Fan Award,” given to an individual or organization whose efforts have shown exceptional leadership in lung cancer research.

Donor Story

Upstaging Lung Cancer: A Cancer Survivor’s Mission to Give Back

Hildy Grossman survived lung cancer thanks to an MRI scan that caught two tumors in her right lung. Since then, she has dedicated her time to leading her nonprofit, Upstage Lung Cancer, in raising funds for lung cancer early detection research, including supporting the work of Massachusetts General Hospital oncologist Lecia Sequist, MD, MPH.

Marie Walton
December 20, 2023

When Hildy Grossman, PhD, went to her primary care provider for a wrist injury in 2006, there was no way she could have known she would come out of treatment for that minor injury with a lung cancer diagnosis. “I had no symptoms, nothing,” Hildy says. “But when they took an MRI of my back to check for neurological damage, they found two tiny tumors in my right lung.” Hildy had the early-stage tumors surgically removed, and now, 17 years later, she is happy, healthy and cancer-free.

Survival Shouldn’t Be An Accident

A clinical psychologist and a jazz singer, Hildy knew how lucky she had been to have her lung cancer detected so early, and she wanted to do something to help give others the chance she’d had. She asked herself, “Why me? I’m not special; why did I survive this when so many don’t?” Her answer came in the form of Upstage Lung Cancer, the non-profit organization she founded to raise her voice along with other professional performers to raise funds for lung cancer early detection. Upstage Lung Cancer is run by volunteers and its mission is to use the performing arts to promote awareness, advance understanding, remove the social stigma of lung cancer and to raise funds for research and innovation in early detection and diagnosis.

“I thought, ‘let’s put on a show!’” Hildy says. “Using music and the performing arts to raise awareness around lung cancer, to me, was like what Mary Poppins says; a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.”

Upstage’s performances are a celebration of surviving and thriving in the face of terrifying cancer diagnoses and of a community rallying together to support the researchers working to increase lung cancer survival rates — and they have fun doing it. Their October 2023 show was titled, “Why don’t we … JUST DANCE?” featuring vocal performances by Hildy and her troupe, as well as Indian classical dance, soft-shoe and Irish dance. Their next concert, “Frank and Tony,” featuring the music of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, will take place on March 26th.

Developing Tools for Early Detection

One of the beneficiaries of Upstage Lung Cancer’s fundraising is Lecia Sequist, MD, MPH, Director of the Cancer Early Detection and Diagnostics Clinic at Mass General Cancer Center. Dr. Sequist’s work focuses on advancing the early detection of lung cancer in populations in which instances of lung cancer are rising. “We want to develop better tools to help us understand who might be at higher risk of developing lung cancer, and how to diagnose and treat people before they start developing symptoms, which is often once the cancer has already spread. A lot of the time, it’s too late to think about a cure at that stage,” Dr. Sequist says.

Dr. Sequist explains that predictors of lung cancer were once just connected to smoking — smokers were considered high risk and non-smokers were considered low risk. But today, the populations with the highest increase in diagnoses are many groups of people who have never smoked. This has required oncologists to think differently about the ways that early detection screenings are offered and about how to make them accessible to new groups of people.

Funds raised through Upstage Lung Cancer are helping to advance Dr. Sequist’s work in this area. “We’re trying to understand the other high-risk characteristics that a person might have, beyond just smoking cigarettes, that are more in keeping with the modern epidemiology of lung cancer,” she explains. “Our studies each focus on a group that has a known higher risk of lung cancer than the general public. One is firefighters, due to their occupational exposure to chemicals and pollutants, and the other is Asian females who are non-smokers, because there is a higher risk of lung cancer in that demographic group.”

Dr. Sequist’s relationship to Upstage Lung Cancer is a special one — this year, she was the recipient of the group’s “Fan Award,” given to an individual or organization whose efforts have shown exceptional leadership in lung cancer research. “Upstage’s performances are amazing! Attendees have fun, and they also learn something about lung cancer and the scope of the problem,” says Dr. Sequist. “I’m so honored to be supported by Upstage Lung Cancer, and grateful for the work they do that allows me to do mine.”

To learn more about how you can support the Cancer Early Detection and Diagnostics Clinic, please contact us.