What happens when a doctor brings his guitar into the chemo room?
My guest this week sings in the cancer ward on a regular basis, and his patients absolutely love it.
Dr. Steven Eisenberg, the “Singing Oncologist,” is co-founder of California’s largest medical oncology practice, and he uses the power of music to help his patients heal.
On this show with Dr. Steven, you’re about to learn:
- 3 small changes you can make right now to help prevent cancer
- The power of love and empathy in medicine
- Why you should schedule a ski trip for 30 years from now
- And much more…
DR.STEVEN EISENBERG: THE SINGING ONCOLOGIST
Abel: Dr. Steven Eisenberg is a triple board-certified medical doctor. Also known as the Singing Oncologist, Dr. Eisenberg co-writes songs for and with his cancer patients through Lyrical Life, recently featured on NBC’s Today Show.
Dr. Steven, thank you for coming on the show.
Thanks so much for having me. I’m so thrilled to be here.
Abel: I appreciate you fitting us in—in between two bone marrows, you said. If you’re listening to the audio, he’s in his full oncologist garb right now. I dig it.
I do hematology oncology, so we do some bone marrow biopsies, and we’re seeing a revolution in oncology, man. We’re able to treat so many more cancers and cure people. It’s really an interesting time in medicine, and especially oncology. But what I’m really interested in is prevention. That’s where nutrition and health come in.
The best way to deal with cancer is prevention. @drseisenberg Click To Tweet
Abel: Right, and as humans our fears are misplaced. Many of us fear shark attacks, for example despite the fact that about six people die from shark attacks a year. Meanwhile, your likelihood of dying from falling out of bed is somewhere around seventy-five times higher than a shark attack!
When you look at cancer, diabetes, and other lifestyle conditions that so many of us seem destined to get today, that’s what we should be afraid of. Day to day as an oncologist, you see this up close and personal.
What does it mean to people when they’re diagnosed with cancer? How does that change their life trajectory?
Oh my God, it’s the biggest wakeup call you’ve ever had in your life. I mean, the first thing I talk to people about is, “We’re going to deal with it. We can definitely deal with this.” It depends on what stage and where they are and what type of cancer, but I always go back to, “We’re going to deal with this and we’re going to treat you like a whole person.”
You are a unique individual who just happens to have this issue. This bump in the road, it’s big. But we’re going to deal with it and we’re going to treat you, and we’re going to get back to who you really are. And then we’re going to deal with how this came into your life. Did it have anything to do with stress, alcoholism?
Let’s get down and dirty and try to make some huge changes moving forward. And that’s where I’ve recommended people just come and listen to your stuff, because it’s so powerful.
Abel: Thanks, man. I really appreciate that. This is one of the hardest things that I struggle with—getting people to make lifestyle changes before they absolutely need to. Many of us go through a life experience that’s terrible, like being diagnosed with cancer… or for me, it was losing everything in an apartment fire while my health was poor in my early twenties. It takes hitting rock bottom to then go explore and see how you could live a better way.
A question worth asking is: “Could I make changes now to make sure I’m going to be around for my family and the people I care about? “
I was talking to someone today who said when he was growing up, he didn’t know that drinking water was good for you. He just thought you drink milk, soda, fruit juice—whatever is there, you drink it. Most of us aren’t taught how to eat or drink the right way in school. And doctors don’t learn that in medical school either.
We do not get it in medical school.
Interesting fact: I worked in a health food store during medical school. Everyone else is like, “Dude, you want some NoDoz? We got to cram all night for the test.” I’m like, “No, I’m good with my ginseng and green tea.” It was a long time ago, but I was learning about different herbs and all of these nutraceuticals, because that’s what my parents taught me growing up. That you’re a whole person. And my rock bottom was when I was hit by a car riding a bike when I was thirteen, and I did like a triple lindy in the air and bashed my head on the windshield. Later that night, I flat-lined in the ICU.
It wasn’t until I made a full recovery that my dad took me aside and told me, “You were gone.” And I was only thirteen, but I remember at that time—and this is a true story—I remember saying to myself, “I got a second chance and I want to do something where I can make people smile, and I can sort of give them that opportunity to not die with their music still in them.” So I just wanted to… I didn’t know exactly what it would look like, or whatever, but I just remember thinking, “I got a second chance and I’ve got to do something with this life.”
Abel: Yeah. And look at you now.
Whoa. Look at me now!
CPR: COMPASSION, PRESENCE, RESILIENCE
Abel: When I first saw that clip of you on the Today Show bringing your guitar into the chemo ward, and you start singing with your patients, it melted my heart. It’s so unique, and in the cases when I’ve been a patient, I have never experienced humility like that, especially from my doctor.
So why do you do it? How do you do it, and how do people react?
They’re always a little shocked at first, but I call that CPR. I’m shocking them. My CPR is compassion, presence, and resilience. That’s my CPR. Nowadays, it’s funny. They go, “Where’s my song?”
But in the beginning, it was really a shock. And I’ve always loved songwriting. I was in middle school writing punk rock songs to REM and The Cure. And then in medical school, I started writing more and more music. And then oncology, what happened was, I got sick. I developed colitis. I was so stressed out. I wasn’t sleeping. I wasn’t eating right.
I developed colitis and I was sick. I was losing weight. And one of my favorite artists, Peter Himmelman, had a story writing contest. You would write a story of how Peter’s music impacted you.
So I wrote a story about this song that I loved called “Mission of My Soul.” And I wrote how his music would lift me up in those middle-of-the-night calls, when at four in the morning you’re drawing blood for somebody, and you’re just exhausted. And I won the contest, and the prize was that Peter would write a song about me.
It impacted me so much, because he took the story and made the song about how this doctor was… My mission was now giving music and love to people with cancer. And when I heard my own lyrics that he gave to me, I said, “You know what? I’ve got to do this for cancer patients.” And I never looked back. And then it was just me going out into the chemo ward and doing some spontaneous Adam Sandler-esque kind of funny stuff. But then it was more like we would sit down and we’d write together. It was a co-creation based on what moves, touches, and inspires them.
It’s never about the cancer, it’s about what lights them up. It’s a little nudge back into who they are.
You get so caught up with the cancer, obviously, and it’s normal to do so. But I just want to nudge them into, “You’ve got a good chance to beat this. You’re going to live your life. I want you to remember who you are and that you come from love, a foundation of love.” And that’s what it’s all about. It’s just about loving people and connecting to people. And for me, it’s a song, and for someone else, it’s sitting down and Googling next to them. It’s listening to something together, looking for research. It could be anything. But I think it’s that co-creation. And you know the power of music more than anyone.
THE POWER OF MUSIC
Abel: I can definitely attest to the power of music. And I can say this: it’s almost impossible to not have some degree of humility when you’re singing, especially if you don’t define yourself as a singer.
Especially if you’re someone who is getting chemo, for example. When there’s humility all around, and you’re all joining together in song… I’ve been lucky enough to experience this more than most people, because I try to bring that to the party… or to the funeral, in some cases. And everything in between.
There is something so deeply primal about revealing your soft underbelly when you’re singing. You’re putting yourself out there, like you said with the co-creation idea—with the idea that you’re actually creating something in real time, improv, with somebody else. That’s magic that can completely distract you from whatever you’re struggling with at that point, even the biggest struggles you could ever imagine.
This is something that you’re doing in real life with real people, and you’re showing other people that it can be done.
It can. It can, and it is being done. And I think more and more doctors are embracing why they went into medicine in the first place. I really do this. It heals me, Abel.
It heals me just as much, because one out of every two doctors is burned out. That’s 50 percent, and the number one specialty for burnout? Internal medicine and family practice. Internal medicine is what you do before you’re an oncologist, and ER too. One out of every two. And it’s because we’re just getting caught up in the red tape and we’re just sitting there; we’re zombies on our electronic medical records. Beep-boop-be-bop, boop-be-bop. So it’s about connecting to the why.
Everyone says, “Why’d you become a doctor?”
“Because I want to help people.”
That’s the canned response. But I really think it’s because you love people. And these songs are just reminders that you can love that human being sitting across from you, and you can get to know them without keeping that “barrier between you and the patient.” That’s what saved me.
What saved me was that compassion that the patient showed me when I was burned out. One of my patients said, “Forget about me, I’ve got a few months to live.” Her name was Flavy.
She says, “How are you doing today? You don’t look so good, Dr. E. How are you?”
Literally, she’s dying of lung cancer, stage four. I go into her hospital room, and she asks me how I’m doing. She knew how stressed I was, and she goes, “Let’s have a dance.”
She was a dancer in Vegas, and we had a little dance in her hospital room. And in that moment, I could feel something lifting, some of the stress, and that was another major moment. A stage four lung cancer patient cared enough about me, showed compassion for me, my own burnout.
And then I said, “You know what? This is about love and empathy. That’s it for me now. I just want to bring love to whatever I do in medicine. And whatever it looks like, a song or whatever, if I can just make one person smile a little bit, then I can go home that day and feel a little bit like I did something.”
Abel: Like you said, most doctors (no fault of their own, it’s usually just the profession) are sleep-deprived stress balls.
But the other side of that is, if you let your walls down, if you really humanize the whole interaction, at some point, when everyone around you is literally dying of cancer, isn’t that too much for you as a human to handle emotionally?
Yes. Absolutely. And I need to always, every day, create it. Every day, as you know, is a creation. For me, I wake up and I just say, “Touch some people’s lives today.”
There are days when I get a lot of good news, and there are days when I’m given back-to-back-to-back bad news. And those days—those are the days I hug people and I give them a little rub on the back, and we hug each other and we cry a little together. But then we might write a song the next week, and I don’t know, man. You’re right. You just never know what you’re going to get. You really don’t. And I think that goes for everything.
Yes, what I do is very life-and-death, in-your-face, and that’s why I say I want to sort of shock people back into the living before they get cancer. I don’t want you to have to get cancer to sort of wake up and smell the green tea. I want you to realize that it’s all very fragile, and we can be anti-fragile too, as Nassim tells us to be. But that’s a whole other conversation.
I just want to tell people, “Look, you can get healthy now. You can get healthy now, so you don’t have to come and see me. I don’t want to see you. I want you to get healthy; I want you to prevent ever having to come to see me.”
I think that’s what a lot of the extracurricular stuff I do is about. Just sort of helping people smell the green tea, wake up a little, and get off your phone and connect with that person right in front of you. With a little love.
And it’s hard. It’s the hardest thing in the world to remain present. It’s what the great Zen masters like Ram Dass are always trying to tell us: “Be here now.” It’s so hard.
Abel: It is hard. That’s the duality of life, my friend.
We’re already so deep, I guess that’s what happens when you start the show with people dying.
I know. I know. But oncology is about living, man. It’s about living.
People say, “Isn’t it so depressing, what you do? How do you do it? It’s so depressing.”
I say, “Oncology is not about dying; it’s about living. It’s about living whatever time God (or whatever you want to call it—your higher power) gave you, whatever you have left, just embracing it, giving it a hug, and just showing some love, and choosing a little bit more love over fear. Just a little bit.”
Here’s the equation: love is up here; fear is down here. If we can just nudge you a little bit up here for the time we’ve got left, that’s something.
Abel: That’s something!
And that’s all I’m trying to do. And you’re doing it… You’re just doing an amazing job getting the word out, too, that it doesn’t have to be so difficult.
That’s what I love about your system. It’s really straightforward and simple, and that’s why I happen to be a fan. I turn people to your stuff because I just love what you’re about and what you do… and the music, too.
The fact that you embrace music as part of your life is a big deal for me, because you know that a song, a two-minute little ditty, can change a life.
Abel: Music can completely change your life.
We’re whole human beings and treatment should be holistic. We don’t need to just eat better. We don’t need to count our calories and dehumanize the eating process.
One of the things I love about this, Steven, is that you focus on treating the whole human being. That’s what I try to do with this show and all the work I do. Treatment or preventing illness doesn’t come from dehumanizing the way you eat or dehumanizing the way you train… putting yourself on that hamster wheel or nibbling low-quality, low-calorie food out of little microwaveable containers. That’s not the answer.
As odd as it sounds, singing with your patients, painting a picture, taking a walk in nature—all of those things combined will make it a lot easier to eat those fresh veggies you might decide to grow behind your house.
All these things are connected. One of the biggest problems in our society is you don’t know anything about cancer or how to prevent it (aside from not smoking) until you get cancer. And then all of a sudden, you discover all these different things that you should’ve and could have done to prevent your current condition.
Writing a song with the patient is re-humanizing. You’re putting that connection first, man, and you’re just letting the world know that we’re in this game. We’re in this… We’re going to play this game together, and we’re in this, man. We’re going to do what it takes, and we’re going to love each other during the process.
I think, “I’m going to talk to you like you’re my little sister,” when I talk to my breast cancer patients.
“I’m going to talk to you like you’re my little sister and your brother just happens to be an oncologist.” I don’t want to come at you like I’m this big, bad doctor. Let’s just talk like we’re related and we love each other. And that’s what I think that does—gets you back to nature and eating real food and moving your body a little. You know, right?
TINY CHANGES THAT HELP PREVENT CANCER
Abel: Right. What should people do now in order to make sure they don’t wind up with cancer some day?
That’s the billion-dollar question. Obviously, you’ve already touched on it. Do whatever it takes to stop smoking… eating better, and meditation or mindfulness practice. I’m a huge proponent of meditation. If I’m not a writing a song with you, I’m sitting next to you doing a little mindfulness practice with you.
Ninety percent of doctor visits are stress-related. How many of your guests have already said that? It’s so true, and I think the number one thing you can do is meditate and move your body a little each day.
And actually, eating cruciferous vegetables. I don’t have to tell you this, man. Eat some broccoli, work up a teeny little bit of sweat for ten or fifteen minutes, and meditate. If you do those three things, you are so far ahead of the world in cancer prevention.
Here’s the formula: a little more broccoli, and a little less sugar, meat, smoking, and high-fructose corn syrup. A little more love, a little less fear. A little more meditation, a little less Netflix. It’s actually not that hard.
It’s gentle nudging. It’s the littlest, teeny, 1 percent shifts. Because if you try and say, “I am going to meditate an hour a day, every single day for the rest of my life,” two days later, you’re like, “Screw that!”
Abel: Right. That’s not really the meditative mindset you need. You don’t really DO meditation. You un-do it. You let everything go and just be.
One of the problems with our society today is that we’re all wrapped up in stress that’s unprecedented for our minds and the way they’re wired.
The idea that we’re accessible every minute of the day… That’s new. And the idea that we don’t have a free moment, even to stand in line at a store anymore, let alone go fishing. We don’t have that silence that would have been meditation even if they didn’t call it that in years gone by.
What do you think it is about meditation in particular that helps so much? Is it engaging the parasympathetic nervous system? Is it just the idea that you’re getting out of your own head and getting away from some of those stressors so your body can relax? What’s the trick?
It’s absolutely your brain. It’s the neurochemicals. It’s been proven in functional MRIs and functional PETs that when you meditate, you are lighting up parts of your brain that are not typically lit up. And I love the study where they scan the brains of meditating monks. They had all these crazy amazing lighting-up areas, and those are neurochemicals, those are helping you decrease cortisol, helping you with stress levels.
You’re getting parasympathetic, you’re sleeping better… all of our peers are talking about sleep and how important it is and that we’ve got to get off these blue light machines.
I really think the brain-heart connection, the brain-body connection, mind-body medicine—it’s all connected and I think it has to start up here. So when you just lower the stress, lower the cortisol, lower those hormones, you’re starting to get into the psychoneuroimmunology territory, which is the field that I’ve been fascinated by.
One of the first books I got when I went into oncology was the Psychoneuroimmunology of Cancer. It was cool! It was just a book of all these cool studies about how our thoughts and our feelings affect our immune system, and how our immune system can be lowered by our thoughts and our brains, and how that could lower your defenses.
Now, we’re discovering that immunotherapy is the latest craze in oncology, where we’re treating patients with stage four melanoma with immunotherapy. We give them a dose of this medication, it primes their immune system, and now their immune system is stronger and they can make these melanomas melt away in many cases—stage four. So it goes back to the immune system, which is your psychoneuroimmunology—your thoughts, your feelings, your emotions. And that’s a little bit more love, a little bit less fear.
It’s all connected. And I say that I have a little formula I am working on. L.O.V.E. over F.E.A.R.
It’s like this: Listen, Observe, Verbalize, and Empathize instead of Force, Escape, Attack, and React.
So you listen instead of force. You observe your body rather than escape into addiction. You verbalize with your human beings in front of you, rather than attacking. And you empathize with that person; you try to get into their shoes rather than just react to whatever they say. React, react, react.
So that’s my little nudging—listen instead of force. I’d say, try to get up on this side of the formula.
Am I listening? Am I observing what’s going on in my body? Am I verbalizing from the place of love and am I empathizing with that person standing in front of me? If you could just look at each moment… it’s a hard thing to do, but if you could notice—it’s the noticing, right? It’s when you can say, “Wait. Am I thinking my mantra or am I thinking about tomorrow’s meeting?” It’s that noticing, moment to moment.
So, how do we get into that noticing? My noticing, am I on this side of the equation or that side? That’s the key.
Abel: Let’s go back to what you said earlier about breaking a sweat and eating your daily veggies. Those few minutes of the day that you take for meditation or a walk or getting in nature. De-stressing or sleeping.
This is all pretty simple stuff, but it could literally save your life. In fact, it will, if you do it every day.
It will save your life. It will. That is for sure, and you’ve got to make the time. You’ve got to schedule it in. And you know what I heard? I’ve been a little fascinated with this lately. You schedule it in like this: Skiing in the Alps when I’m eighty. That’s how you block the time. You put your future self skiing in the Alps at eighty-five. And then you go, “Wait. Alright, if that’s my future self, I am going to eat that broccoli today!”
Because now… you see what you’re doing? You’re scheduling your future self hiking in the Andes. Hiking in the Andes at seventy-five could be how you block your time to go sweat for a seven-minute workout, right?
Abel: You just hit on it. I read a psych study recently that points to what you just said, that when the brain has a memorable, meaningful goal like that, then all of a sudden you don’t have to wonder whether or not you’re going to work out in the morning or which workout you’re going to do. Same thing with drinking water and eating vegetables.
One of the reasons Olympic athletes and celebrities can stay so lean is because of the way they’re thinking about it. They’re like, “If I want the gold medal, you bet I’m going to eat that broccoli. I’ll eat a ton if you tell me to, because I’m going to get up on that podium. I’m going to win that medal.” And you can apply that to your own life. We’ll be skiing well into our eighties together.
And you start with that because I just turned forty-six. So, hiking the Andes at seventy-six… I’ve got thirty years. Now, that’s my thirty years.
But now I go, “Okay. What can I do this month to forward that possibility of hiking when I’m seventy-six?” Then what can I do this week, and what can I do this day? Then what can I do this moment?” So, you have that thirty-year goal, your five-year goal, your one year, month, day… and then it comes down to this minute. Am I going to notice what’s on my plate, am I going to be a little more mindful? This moment.
So, it does come down to each moment, and that’s the hardest thing. That’s where that meditative mindfulness comes in, and I think that is the hardest thing to do in the world.
Abel: Yes. It is. But these tiny little habits—you can build them over time. I certainly have. And once you do, you build one, you see that you can do it, you see that it wasn’t that hard. Even just waking up in the morning and drinking a glass of water—I think that’s a good example of that.
It’s not hard. You do it. The longer you do it, the easier it gets, and then it leads you to making that next great decision. Maybe you’ll take the vitamins that you know you need with that glass of water. And then all of a sudden you break a sweat right after that.
That’s how I’ve tried to really build my day and create those habits over the past few years. I really do believe that’s the trick. It’s those tiny little things that you do every day.
I would pay good money just to look at your schedule, just to see what you do minute by minute in one day. What you do when you wake up, what you do when you eat, what you ate that day. I just would like to see that one day.
Abel: I’ll make that a blog post!
I would like just to see that, and then I would like to emulate it because… Yeah, I’m in between bone marrows, but yet, I’m trying to still eat healthy. I’m trying. But little teeny habits can build upon one another when you start something you can achieve.
Abel: They give you momentum. Those tiny little things when you add them up—it gets bigger and snowballs.
Like flossing one tooth.
Abel: Right. Exactly. But actually, I’ve never had trouble flossing. Is that a personality thing?
Well, I think you’re very focused on your white chompers because they look like they’re very good chompers, but I think… No, I think flossing has been proven to extend your life by years. But a lot of people, I think, just need to start with one and say, “Look, I can do this.”
Abel: Right. I can say when you’re physically exercising, that can be very powerful. Just doing one simple exercise that day. That’s one thing I’ll do. A seven-minute workout, just push-ups, or even one set of kettlebells.
So I have a question for you, Abel. If you could only do one exercise for the rest of your life, what would it would be?
Abel: It’s a tie for sprinting and burpees… Because each of those challenges your entire body and cardiovascular system. It’s a full-body workout; you break a sweat, you get that hormonal response. Performing athletic movemets will allow you to hike a mountain well into your eighties.
You know what I’m going do today because of you? I am going to schedule in my calendar, “Skiing with Abel in our eighties,” and that is going to be my reminder on my calendar to do burpees today.
Abel: The work in your practice and with the people you care about—you’re showing so many other people that there is a better way to be a doctor, with humanity, and to really affect the world at large.
Before we go, please tell folks where they can find you and what you’re working on next.
WHERE TO FIND DR. STEVEN EISENBERG
We all have some creativity inside of us when you just embrace it. And that’s a teeny thing too, right? Write a one-line poem. Make a little one-line, two-line drawing. Get back to the childhood wonder of that creativity. Wonder and creativity. Those two things—those could heal your life.
“I wonder how I could get a little more healthy. I’m going to get creative about it. I’m going to floss one tooth. I’m going to eat a piece of broccoli. I’m going to listen to Fat-Burning Man.” Just make a little shift. Get creative and get in the space of wonder.
How Lionitza Dropped 45 Pounds in 3 Months
Before we go, I’d like to share a success story that just came in.
This is from Lionitza. She says:
Thanks to The Wild Diet my family is healthier, active and happy!
We started our journey on May 15th 2016 with The Wild Diet 30 day challenge.
3 months later:
My husband went from 230 pounds to 185 pounds.
Shirt size XL to M. Pant 38 to 32. He even admitted that he is in a better shape than when he was in the US Army.
For me: I started at 238 pounds I’m down to 204.
I was a size 18 and currently I’m a 14. My doctor took me off Metformin (type 2 diabetes pill) and my blood sugar is normal.
Abel, keep up the good work. God bless you and your family.
That’s what I’m talking about!
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