Singing oncologist uses music to show patients ‘a little more love’
Steven G. Eisenberg, DO, has become known as the singing oncologist.
As he gets to know his patients, he pens original lyrics and transforms them into songs that he hopes will lift their spirits and give them encouragement as they go through treatment.
“As soon as a patient hears that they have cancer, they go into a ‘shutdown mode’ where they cannot really hear what the physician is telling them,” Eisenberg told HemOnc Today. “It is a lot like posttraumatic stress disorder.”
Eisenberg — an oncologist, hematologist and internal medicine specialist with cCARE, which stands for California Cancer Associates for Research & Excellence — has discovered that songwriting and music can dramatically improve the moods of his patients.
“How wonderful that we, as physicians, can help patients without medication,” he said. “The whole reason for this ‘passion project’ is to nudge our patients toward a little less fear and a little more love.”
HemOnc Today spoke with Eisenberg about how he began singing for his patients, as well as what he believes health care providers should know about the power of connecting with patients through music.
Question: What motivated you to start singing for patients?
Answer: I wanted to help them realize they are more than just a person with cancer. I set out to show them that they can still have a life, and they can live their best life throughout cancer treatment and thereafter.
Q: How did this come about?
A: Soon after I became an oncologist, a couple of years into my first practice, there was a big break-up and the practice split up. It stressed me out to the point where I was not sleeping or eating well. There was a lot of fighting going on, and I developed stress-related colitis. It was a difficult time for me as an oncologist, and it somewhat over took my consciousness. I rather lost my own power during this time. As this was happening, Peter Himmelman — one of my favorite musical artists — had a storywriting contest. I entered the contest and wrote my story about when I was an intern/resident, with the late nights and 3 a.m. calls. I explained how I would listen to a song of his, “Mission of My Soul,” which reminded me that my mission was to help patients and to be there in the middle of the night for them, to make a difference with one person at a time. I won the contest, and the prize was a song written by Peter. So, my favorite artist wrote me a song based upon my words and my story. Upon listening to the song, it hit me: I am not the stress that I am feeling or the cause of the practice break-up. I realized I could go through this awful experience and still honor the highest part of myself — bringing compassion, empathy and creativity to patients going through cancer. This was my mission all along. I saw first-hand the benefit that songwriting and music can have on someone.
Q: Can you describe your process?
A: We start with a writing session during the last 5 minutes or so of the patient visit. We finish writing over the weekend, often over the phone. I ask them what moves and inspires them, how they met their loved one, how were they as a kid and what makes them laugh. I scribble down ideas as they are talking, and then we let it percolate over the next couple of days. Ideas just start to pour in. The patient has shared their soul with me, and these ideas are now turning into lyrics that they have written and shared.
Q: How does this process help patients get through their treatment?
A: As they are participating in this process, they are releasing a lot of positive brain chemistry — dopamine receptor, dopamine serotonin and endorphins. All of these are happening as they are creating and writing the song with me. I am not just playing any song. It is a co-creation with the patient, and I guide them through the process with me.
Q: M any studies show the benefit of music for healing. Is there one study particularly meaningful to you?
A: One study that came out in December showed the effect music has on people may be genetically determined by dopamine functionality. This study represented the first use of the imaging genetics approach in the field of music. Researchers concluded that even a nonpharmacological intervention such as music might regulate mood and emotional responses at both the behavioral and neuronal levels. The lead author stated that these findings encourage the search for personalized music-based interventions for the treatment of brain disorders, as well as abnormal mood- and emotion-related brain activity. It is normal for someone battling cancer to have changes in mood and feel sad, and we now have research showing that a personalized music-based intervention can help.
Q: Have you encountered any challenges when doing this for patients?
A: People often ask me what happens if the patient does not like the song that I play. Well, they always like it, because they wrote it with me. It is about their life and what they love. I have never had a patient tell me they did not like the song. I am sure they do not want to upset me, but they really do love it because they are hearing their life and their love for life coming back to them in these lyrics that they wrote with me.
Q: What type of responses have you received from your colleagues? Have other oncologists followed your examp le?
A: I have seen physicians start to do this with their patients, and I have heard about doctors strumming their guitars in chemotherapy rooms. I have even heard of oncologists getting musicians to play in chemotherapy suites. Some of my friends and colleagues are following this idea that music is a very easy and effective way to help patients feel better in the moment.
Q: Is there anything else that you would like to mention ?
A: I want physicians to know that taking the time to do a little tiny shift at the end of a patient visit can go a long way for both the patient and the oncologist. Sharing something beyond data from the latest study or the patient’s scan results is more beneficial than you know. It does not have to be songwriting. It can be anything. Connection is vital through music, laughter and self-expression. These things are powerful beyond what we can measure, and each of us has the power to make a difference in the life of the person sitting across from us. It is all about one person at a time. The song — or anything that you share — will live on with them forever. People remember how you made them feel, not what you said to them. Make them smile and you will, in turn, enjoy the practice of oncology to the maximum. – by Jennifer Southall
For more information:
Steven G. Eisenberg, DO, can be reached at cCARE, 16918 Dove Canyon Road, Suite 103, San Diego, CA, 92127; email: firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about Eisenberg or his approach, visit www.drsteven.com.
Disclosure: Eisenberg reports no relevant financial disclosures.