Dr. Steven Eisenberg is a triple-board-certified physician known affectionately as “the singing oncologist.” The co-founder of cCARE, California’s largest medical oncology practice, “Dr. E” has won numerous awards for his uniquely empathetic bedside manner and commitment to meaningful patient engagement.
He joined me on my Now to Next podcast to share his message that there is hope and ever-improving available care for cancer patients. He also has a passion for helping people remember their true selves through their cancer battle, which is a part of his unique treatment methods. His book Love Is the Strongest Medicine: Notes from a Cancer Doctor on Connection, Creativity, and Compassion, comes out on May 25, 2021.
A Second Chance at 13
As a 13-year-old in the ’80s, all Steven wanted to do was listen to popular records, likePrince, and talk to girls. One day riding his bike, a car hit him, and he flew up into the air. His head bashed through the windshield. He doesn’t remember the accident; the next thing he knew, he was flat on the ground with paramedics on either side of him and his mother crying over his left shoulder.
His brain was swollen from the impact, and during his first night in the ICU, he stopped breathing. He remembers seeing the light and moving toward it, then woke up surrounded by nurses and hearing one of them say, “It’s okay. You’re going to be okay.”
After that, his dad sat with him and explained that he almost didn’t make it. He said, “You got a second chance, and you don’t want to blow it.”
Steven was only 13 years old, but the idea that he almost died seriously affected him. He got braver. Instead of trying to fit in, he decided to do what he wanted. But, first, he had to recover.
The speech center in his brain was damaged, and he had to write everything down in order to communicate. His mind was clear, and he knew what he wanted to say, but he couldn’t get it out.
It was then that he learned speech and song come from different centers in the brain. Someone in the hospital suggested trying to have him sing, so his mom brought in a Boombox (this was 1983) and played his favorite album at the time, Michael Jackson’s Thriller. When the song “Billy Jean” played, Steven sang along with the chorus.
It was the first thing out of his mouth that made sense, and it was a pivotal moment for him because he knew he would eventually be able to speak again.
Songs Can Help Us Remember Who We Are
In his practice, Dr. E supplements his cancer treatments with the healing power of music, laughter, and connection. Listening to a patient’s favorite song or watching a clip from their favorite funny show can be a moment of connection that tells you a lot about who they are.
When he graduated from medical school, Dr. E went into private practice, and the business aspect of medicine started to drain him. Very early in his career, he was close to burning out.
At that time, he entered a contest put on by Peter Himmelman where contestants shared how Peter’s songs affected them. Dr. E shared how Mission of My Soul helped him through a hard time and he won the contest!
The prize was a custom song written by Peter about the winner. Dr. E shared details of his life with Peter and got back a two-minute ditty that helped him remember who he was and why he became a doctor. It reconnected him with his passion and purpose. It saved him from burnout, and he realized he needed to do this for his patients too.
The next patient to walk in the door was Chuck, a pretty famous piano teacher in Carlsbad, California. He had stage four prostate cancer, and nothing was working. He came to Dr. E for a second opinion.
Dr. E put him on a new kind of chemo, and initially, he was responding. Before teaching piano, Chuck had a semi-famous musical comedy act in Vegas. On their first meeting, Chuck played Dr. E “The World’s Dirtiest Song.”
Dr. E shared his idea of writing songs to help his patients battle through the treatments. Chuck was delighted. The song Dr. E wrote for Chuck was called “Teaching Me,” and he first played it for Chuck and his wife who were so moved they cried. “You understand me!” Chuck exclaimed.
Unfortunately, Chuck’s cancer had progressed, and he passed away not long afterward. His wife invited Dr. E to play the song at his celebration of life. A few of Chuck’s thousands of piano students played, and then Dr. E shared “Teaching Me.” It was a beautiful, healing moment for everyone who attended.
Treat the Patient as an Entire Human Being
I asked Dr. E about the fact that he is a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO), which is different than an MD.
He comes from a long line of DOs. Osteopathic medicine is compatible with allopathic medicine (MDs), and there is a lot of overlap in training. One big difference though, is DOs learn hands-on manipulation — similar to chiropractic, but slightly different. They learn to prescribe and do surgery but also place a large focus on “treating the entire human being.”
In his book, Dr. E describes walking into class his first day of medical school and seeing the teacher point at the door and say, “Any of you who walk through that door and who do not adhere to the 10 Cs of connection should turn around and walk out.” The full list of 10 C’s are in his book but include compassion, connection, creativity, and confidence —evidence of the idea of treating not just the illness or condition, but the entire human being.
Know ‘Why’ and Be Your Own Advocate
Dr. E has dealt with patients who presented the same cancer multiple times or several types of cancer and beat them all. There are lots of amazing stories inside the book. One he shared on my podcast was his patient Alicia, a 36-year-old retired Marine with stage four colon cancer. It was in her liver, which means it had metastasized.
Dr. E told her if they were super aggressive, they might be able to make her “stage four no evidence of disease.” Once a patient is in stage four, they are never considered to be cured, but they can achieve “no evidence of disease.”
Alicia went through several rounds of chemo, and the cancer slowly shrunk from the size of a softball to the size of a ping-pong ball. It was only in one lobe of the liver, luckily. Once it shrank, they referred her to an excellent surgeon who removed it — a challenging surgery for the patient. Then, Alicia went through another round of awful chemo. What sustained her the whole time was the clear idea she had to stay alive and be there for her son.
Today she is “no evidence of disease” (knock on wood) and can be there for her son. A patient connected with a clear purpose has more reason to fight, both for life and through the challenging treatment process.
Today, cancer treatment has advanced and new treatments are emerging all the time. There are biologics and immunotherapies. Doctors can test to determine the specific kind of cancer. A patient can have stage four and still live with it. In some circumstances, they can be disease-free and just be monitored and followed very closely. If you’re not happy with your treatment, get a second opinion. You should always feel comfortable, and you have to be your own best advocate. If you are a son or daughter and it’s your parents going through it, help be their advocate.
Cancer Fight Club
Dr. E shared with me that working so closely with life and death taught him we’re just here for a moment on this little blue dot flying around. Cancer patients can feel they have this artificial expiration date stamped on them, but Dr. E encourages them to go against it because none of us is a statistic! None of us know how long we’re going to get.
With the launch of his book, Love Is the Strongest Medicine: Notes from a Cancer Doctor on Connection, Creativity, and Compassion, Dr. E started a group on Facebook called Cancer Fight Club. It’s a private group to go over the principles of the book chapter by chapter. It’s a safe place to support each other and connect. To join, email [email protected]. And, to hear some of his perspectives and innovative treatment style directly from him, check out the full episode of “Now to Next” on YouTube or your favorite podcasting platform. And, as always, you can direct any questions you have to me too.
If you know or anyone you know is struggling with cancer, my prayers are with you, and I recommend you buy the book to find out more about healing people with music, laughter, and hope.