Left to right: Longtime friends and musicians Cody Romshak, Lorne Vanfossen, Mark Puskarich and Dave Clo.
December 2012 Issue
Ohio musicians create a legacy of hope for cancer research.
It's not a stretch to say that Mark Puskarich and Lorne VanFossen were the John Lennon and Paul McCartney of Freeport, Ohio’s Lakeland High School. Like the legendary Beatles, the duo were guitar players who met as teens, each admiring the other’s talent.
“Lorne was really, really good,” Puskarich, 49, recalls with a smile. “Although he was a grade ahead of me, we bonded through music.”
The two formed a band, Aereon, with classmate Cody Romshak and Dave Clo of St. Clairsville, and played gigs around the state, forging a friendship that flourished long after graduation: Through college, marriage and full-time jobs, the foursome never lost sight of each other. They organized regular jam sessions and committed themselves to keeping in touch.
But life is fragile. It has a way of changing in a heartbeat: On a wintry February afternoon in 2000, VanFossen was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. The frightening news served as a potent call to action for the chums.
“We were pretty shook up,” Puskarich says with a sigh, recalling the way time seemed to stand still that day. “Lorne was only 37 and had young kids.
“None of us had a history with cancer,” he continues. “We didn’t know what we were dealing with. Here we were in our 30s thinking we were going to lose one of our best friends.”
The guys took turns driving their pal to chemotherapy and radiation treatments. When VanFossen lost his hair, Romshak shaved his head in support.
Puskarich, however, chose a different symbol of unity: He thought about the passion that cemented them. Before their friend’s illness, the musicians had tossed around the idea of recording an album of Christmas music as a gift for family and friends. Now, as VanFossen’s health hung in the balance, then began to slowly improve, the concept took on monumental proportions. Maybe, just maybe, Puskarich reasoned, they could create a CD that would help fund cancer research.
“People raised money [for research] long before Lorne got sick that went to help him,” he explains. “So, this would be our way of paying it forward — giving back to celebrate his survivorship.”
Rounds of tough love ensued, as the mates coaxed their buddy to lend his musical prowess to the album.
“Even when Lorne felt like crap, we dragged him into the studio and made him record,” Puskarich recalls. “Some days when he felt particularly drained, he’d fall asleep.”
But that didn’t matter. The important thing was that he was there.
“In hindsight,” Puskarich says, “Lorne told us he really appreciated us pushing him, as it was a meaningful distraction from all he was going through.”
The fruits of that labor of love, “A Christmas to Cure Cancer,” was released in 2002. Much to the group’s amazement, sales of the CD — along with a benefit to promote it — raised $35,000 for James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute at The Ohio State University.
And the music continues to soar: Over the past 10 years, Puskarich has produced six additional holiday compilations — as well as a dozen blues and jazz CDs and concerts. The nonprofit organization he founded, A Christmas to Cure Cancer Inc., has raised $800,000 for the cause.
Yet, he’s low-key about the noteworthy accomplishment.
“Obviously, people who love music believe in the healing power of it,” Puskarich reflects. “We hope the songs on the CDs help soothe emotions and overcome sadness — whether you’re dealing with a cancer diagnosis or any other challenge in life.
“But at the same time,” he adds, “we want to offer another way to rally around a cure for cancer, to support research and raise dollars for early detection.”
The musician’s friends marvel at his steadfast resolve.
“Mark is one of the most selfless individuals I’ve ever met,” says former Ohio State University All-American and NFL star Chris Spielman, now a college football analyst with ESPN. “He’s been blessed in his life, and is always looking to turn around and do something wonderful for somebody else.”
In 1998, Spielman’s wife, Stefanie, was 30 years old and three months pregnant when she discovered the lump that led to a diagnosis of breast cancer. The Canton native, a linebacker for the Buffalo Bills at the time, gave up the game to stay home with his wife and care for her and their children. Through the ensuing decade, the couple became advocates for breast-cancer detection and research, as well as avid supporters of “A Christmas to Cure Cancer.” So much so that they performed the Sonny and Cher hit, “I Got You Babe,” for Puskarich’s “Buckeye Cruise for Cancer” CD, released in 2009. Stefanie passed away that same year after a valiant battle with the disease, but her legacy lives on through the Stefanie Spielman Fund for Breast Cancer Research at Ohio State, which has raised more than $11 million to date.
“It’s easy to write a check,” Spielman says, “but Mark also volunteers his time and his efforts and his areas of expertise. His kindness and genuine spirit are unmatched.”
Holiday after holiday, that sincerity has garnered enthusiasm for the project among local performers. For many, adding their talents to the CDs is balm for the grief they’re feeling over losing a loved one to cancer.
“Everyone is touched by the disease in some way,” says Ellen Bryan, Miss Ohio 2011, who sang “Grown-Up Christmas List” on Volume 6 of “A Christmas to Cure Cancer.” Her uncle passed away from lung cancer in October.
“The CDs are a lasting remembrance,” the Celina native reflects. “When you play them, you’re reminded of how fortunate you are to be healthy — while your heart goes out to those who are suffering.”
On November 3, Lorne VanFossen lost his battle with the heart complications that ensued from the radiation treatments he received a decade ago. He was 50.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
To learn more about “A Christmas to Cure Cancer,” including ways to donate or purchase CDs, visit achristmastocurecancer.org or
For more stories from “A Christmas to Cure Cancer” performers, visit ohiomagazine.com.