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Book shares oncologist’s life and philosophy

Dr. Steven Eisenberg
Dr. Steven Eisenberg
(Drew McGill)

Recently, Dr. Steven Eisenberg took a day off from his busy schedule. That’s because May 25 was a special occasion, the fulfillment of a dream.

On that day, Carlsbad-based Hay House Inc. released Eisenberg’s long-contemplated first book, “Love is the Strongest Medicine: Notes from a Cancer Doctor on Connection, Creativity and Compassion,” co-authored by Jana Murphy.

The volume is available in hard copy as well as online and in audio format through hayhouse.com. A book-signing tour is in the works, including an appearance at the bookstore Diesel in Carmel Valley, information that will be posted at drsteven.com

“Love” is the product of Eisenberg’s observations and experiences in interacting with patients for over two decades as an oncologist and medical student.

“It’s a lifelong dream and today is the day it actually happened in the world,” Eisenberg said when he was interviewed on May 25. “It’s out. It is available everywhere ...

“I’ve wanted to be able to touch people’s hearts with this for 25 years. It took a lot of failures to get here, but we’re here.”

The cover of “Love is the Strongest Medicine”
The cover of “Love is the Strongest Medicine”
(Courtesy)

The 50-year-old physician, whose practice includes an Encinitas office, credits his patients over the years with imparting the wisdom that led to his unique, innovative approach to treatment and eventually the book.

“This is like my life’s work in terms of everything my patients have taught me about living the preciousness of every moment,” Eisenberg said. “When I work with people battling cancer every day, they teach me more than I could ever teach them. They teach about life, about living, about moment-to-moment experience. They’re incredible human beings.”

Eisenberg, who grew up in a Philadelphia suburb, said he’s been writing since his days in medical school. After earning degrees at Penn State and the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, he completed a three-year fellowship in oncology and hematology at Georgetown University’s Vincent T. Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center. Eisenberg lives with his family in 4S Ranch near Carmel Valley.

“It’s gone through so many iterations,” said Eisenberg of his attempts to distill his writing into book form. “There was never a really legitimate chance to get it going until much more recently. ...

“It didn’t materialize until we came up with this idea. It’s sort of a memoir with a message. It’s about the lessons I’ve learned through my patients and all the stories, and how they’ve changed my life and transformed my life, and taught me what’s so important in life.”

The 178-page text chronicles events and anecdotes that shaped Eisenberg’s career as well his novel methods in working with patients.

Whereas many cancer physicians traditionally have maintained distance from patients, Eisenberg discovered early on that personal interactions were what he thrived on. Compassionate communications, he observed, made a difference in patients’ attitudes and health as they fought through their disease while undergoing often debilitating therapies.

In interacting with patients, Eisenberg discovered that his background as a guitar player and songwriter as well as being an amateur comedian became useful in toughing patients through music and humor.

“Love” traces the evolution from his discovery in medical school that recorded music helped soothe patients to later in his career when he began working with his clients by performing and even composing songs together. The chapters are titled after songs that were patients’ favorites, such as The Beatles’ “Let It Be” and Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors.”

He elucidates in an early chapter how one patient whom he saw when he was an intern seemed buoyed by listening to a recording of the Frank Sinatra hit “My Way” even as she struggled with a terminal diagnosis.

A later chapter is titled for the blues composition “Spoonful” after Eisenberg discovered one of his patients was a fan of the genre and they began singing those songs together.

The chapter, “Teaching Me,” is titled after a song Eisenberg co-wrote with a patient, an episode that led him to incorporate songwriting collaborations as a technique.

“When I think about writing songs for patients, we’re actually writing the song together,” Eisenberg said. “When I interview a patient about what moves them and touches them and inspires them in their life and that becomes the lyrics of a song ... we’re connecting.

“I’m learning things about the patient that you don’t typically learn when you’re just going through the medical history. We’re sharing things about our lives with each other. I’m vulnerable with the patients and they’re vulnerable with me. It’s a true connection.

“When we’re in that exam room, I like to break down the wall between doctor and patient. In the end, we’re just two souls having a common experience.”

He said scientific studies increasingly provide evidence that compassion does make a difference in treating cancer patients.

The first chapter of the book recounts how Eisenberg’s interest in medicine stemmed from a nearly fatal accident during his childhood.

At the age of 13, he was riding his bike when a station wagon slammed into him and he suffered extensive, potentially life-threatening injuries. During his emergency care and prolonged convalescence, he was impressed by the care and manner with which he was treated.

Eisenberg also recites bright moments as well as despairing episodes from his time in medical school through the years of his private practice in San Diego after he arrived here in 2002.

He initially struggled with the demands of a group practice in which he was involved, which led to depression and he also had some physical ailments to overcome.

Such tribulations were learning experiences that helped to better understand what patients go through. He went on to cofound cCare, which his website describes as the largest medical oncology practice in California, as well as Workup Inc., a collaborative platform for health-care teams.

His focus on an empathetic approach with patients led him to receive many recognitions, including being the first recipient of the Dr. Emanuel Fliegelman Humanitarian Award.

“I think the words ‘You have cancer’ are the three scariest words you can put together in the English language,” Eisenberg said. “Bringing in that L.O.V.E. — a little more listening, a little more observing, a little more verbalizing from the heart, and a little more empathy can alleviate just a little bit of that fear. If they have a little bit less fear than when they first came in, that means I did a good job that day.”

“Love is the Strongest Medicine” received endorsements from 21 prominent physicians, authors and artists.

The book features a forward by Rudolph Tanzi, a renowned neurologist who co-wrote the best-selling book, “Super Brain, Super Genes and The Healing Self,” with Deepak Chopra.

“Steven’s perspective is one that’s enlightening and always seeking higher ground for his patients, his relationships and himself,” Tanzi writes. “He demonstrates it in his commitment to living on the cutting edge of medicine and embracing (and pioneering) new diagnostic and treatment technologies, and equally in his constant mindfulness that care is key to health care.”


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