May 12, 2016

Cancer Center patients make their musical dreams come true

Rob Schieber and Jordan Lawhead each moved to Nashville to pursue a career in music. Songwriter and publisher Kris Bergsnes introduced them knowing they were both cancer survivors.

Rob Schieber, left, sings a song as fellow musician and cancer patient Jordan Lawhead and oncologist Alicia Morgans, M.D., listen. Schieber and Lawhead became friends and music collaborators while being treated at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center. (photo by Joe Howell)

Rob Schieber and Jordan Lawhead each moved to Nashville to pursue a career in music. Songwriter and publisher Kris Bergsnes introduced them knowing they were both cancer survivors. But a chance meeting in a patient waiting room at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center (VICC) united the two men in their cancer journey as well as in friendship and collaboration, ultimately creating a chance for Schieber to perform at the Grand Ole Opry.

Schieber, 53, who performs under the name Robert K. Wolf, said even as a young child, “I always had music flowing through me.”

After the move to Nashville, Schieber, an accomplished guitarist and pianist, garnered success as a performer and songwriter, and co-wrote a song with the woman who would become his wife, Lori K. Ingberg. “The Safest Place I Know” begins with the words “When the arrows of misfortune fly…,” a theme that would be prophetic.

In 2012, Schieber was diagnosed with bladder cancer, which is notoriously difficult to cure.

At VICC he has undergone several rounds of chemotherapy and radiotherapy and has enrolled in clinical trials for new therapies. Each time, his cancer started growing again.
Medical oncologist Alicia Morgans, M.D., assistant professor of Medicine, has been amazed by his resilience.

“He’s been through a lot, and he has given his time and his body to study bladder cancer so that we can move the field forward. This has been incredibly selfless and gracious of him, and it hasn’t always been easy.”

Jordan Lawhead’s cancer journey started in 2008 when he noticed a bump on his neck. It was stage IV melanoma, a deadly form of skin cancer that had already spread throughout his body.

“I came to Vanderbilt and was treated by the extraordinary Dr. Igor Puzanov,” Lawhead said.

Lawhead was given a therapy called IL-2, which works in only a small percentage of patients. Lawhead, now 31, was one of those patients and stereotactic surgery at VICC zapped the remaining cancer.

“It really shifted a lot of my life perspective of what I’m going to do with my time if I get to live and be here,” Lawhead said.

Reconnecting with Schieber was one of those changes, and the pair started collaborating on an album.

“What I love about Rob is that even in the midst of a horrible disease, he is creating beautiful music and amazing songs and an amazing album. Some of the best and most legendary musicians in town have given their time to his project — not as charity work, but out of respect for the great songwriter that he is,” Lawhead said.

The younger man, whose music has appeared on MTV, the Lifetime Network, ABC, NBC and several films, also connected with ARK Project Now — (ARK stands for Acts of Random Kindness). The service group travels the country selecting individuals to bless with a good deed.

Lawhead recommended that Schieber get a chance to play his signature song at the biggest country music venue, the Grand Ole Opry. The group started knocking on doors and singer Mickey Guyton, touched by the story, agreed to give up some of her time on the Opry stage. Rob learned about the opportunity just one week in advance.

“Her act of generosity was just over-the-top,” Schieber marveled. “She handed me a song slot. When you’re on the Grand Ole Opry you get two songs to share with the audience and she just stepped off the stage and gave me the center stage of the Grand Ole Opry. I just sang my heart out.”

Lawhead was there to witness the culmination of their dream.

“I was sitting in the Opry and watching Rob play and I am still touched by the experience of seeing men and women and families hearing this song and hearing his story and them reaching for one another,” he said.

Schieber brought an early mix of the song and later a recording of the event to share with his VICC clinical trials team.

“He played a little bit of the video from the Grand Ole Opry, showing off the bright red coat he wore and the coolest boots! I’ve been able to live vicariously through his experiences, and I loved hearing that song,” Morgans said.

Schieber and Lawhead are putting the finishing touches on their album, and they marvel at the way cancer and music brought them together.

“All of this kindness, I think Jordan draws it,” Schieber said. “He has this attitude toward life — every day is thankfulness. We do our best in the adversity to say ‘thank you.’”