Singing Oncologist Cowrites Songs for Patients

Fran Lowry

January 09, 2017

"Musick has charms to soothe a savage Breast, to soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak."

These words were written 320 years ago by the poet and playwright William Congreve in The Mourning Bride.

They resonate to this day for oncologist Steven G. Eisenberg, DO, of San Diego, California. He composes original songs for his cancer patients to help them get through their often gruelling treatments.

Dr Steven, as he prefers to be called, learned about the healing power of music firsthand. Several years ago, as a young doctor just starting out in practice, he went through a particularly stressful time when the medical practice he had just joined broke up.

Dr Steven Eisenberg

"I was just getting established, I was the new guy, and the stress of the breakup really started to get to me," he told Medscape Medical News. "It affected my sleep, it was affecting my colon. I got stress-induced colitis. I couldn't eat. I was losing weight. I wasn't feeling well. The breakup was breaking me up."

This Is Your Song

In a fortunate coincidence, while all of this was going on, Dr Steven's favorite musical artist, Peter Himmelman ("who is now a New York Times bestselling author, but that's another story") held a story-writing contest.

"The contest was for people to share how Peter's music has touched them, and the grand prize for the winner would be a personalized song written specifically for them by Peter ― my favorite artist! So I entered this contest and wrote how Peter's music has touched me and helped me get through some of my hardest days as an intern and as a resident and as a fellow training to be an oncologist, especially his song called "The Mission of My Soul." I would listen to it after those 3 AM, 4 AM calls, where you are called to the emergency room and you have to go admit people and all those late nights, where you're, like, oh, my goodness, this is really hard. Why am I doing this?

"So I titled my story, 'The Mission of My Medicine' and how music has touched me and how music can help patients, and how his music has inspired me to bring music to my patients. At that point, I might have brought the guitar into the chemo room and done little spontaneous concerts, but I really hadn't done these personalized one-on-one songwriting sessions," he recalls.

"So I win the contest!!! A week or two later, he sends me this beautiful song. It nudges me back to remember who I am at the core, who is my highest authentic self. It's someone who believes in creativity, in love, in the patient-doctor connection. These are all the reasons I became a doctor, and the stress of the breakup made me forget who I was. I wasn't taking care of that highest part of myself. When I heard these lyrics coming back to me, I started changing myself as a doctor and human being, and I started honoring that. I started writing songs with my own patients, and all of my symptoms slowly but surely resolved."

The epiphany Dr Steven experienced after winning the contest prompted him to do something similar with his patients.

"It's not just playing a chemo room concert. Patients would come up to me afterwards and say, 'That was great, I felt like I was in a coffee house. It was fun,' but I wanted to take it deeper. I wanted to give patients their own beautiful song that they cowrote. Peter used my words, my sentiments, and my life to write my song. So I said it has to be a co-creation, because I believe that everyone has that poet, that artist, that songwriter inside of them. They had it as a kid, but all that creativity gets stamped out of them by society," he said.


Dr Steven recalled the first patient he wrote a song with: a piano teacher named Charles.

"He was the most popular piano teacher in Carlsbad, California, God rest his soul. His students called him Chucky. He had been a performer in Las Vegas. He had a musical comedy act and was very popular. But one of his fans got killed in a drunk driving accident, and he noticed at that point that many of his fans were drinking too much. He decided that he didn't want to be part of this Las Vegas scene and decided to go back and rededicate himself to teaching piano to children. So he gave up his Vegas career to teach.

"He had very aggressive prostate cancer, in the bones, and responded beautifully for a while, and then the chemo stopped working, and all of a sudden he was not doing so great. But we talked about the healing power of music and how teaching music to his children could help him battle through the chemo he was getting. His life was given to him by others, through teaching. Out of these talks came the very first song I did with a patient, called 'Teaching Me.'

"I wrote the song with him and his wife together. A lot of it was how much love they shared. Her name was Ellie. The song was about teaching and love and how he loved his students and how the love between him and his wife will always live on.

"Charles taught me that cowriting a song could make a difference for patients. I already believed in the healing power of music, so did Charles, and so we did the first song together.

"I played this song for him and his wife at his bedside towards the end, because he was now bedridden. The tears of joy and love were flowing. When he passed away, Ellie asked me if I could play the song at his celebration of life. His students played their favorite song that he had taught them, and I ended the celebration with the song that we had written together. It was a beautiful experience. Ellie put the lyrics to the song in his remembrance book. It had a verse from the scriptures, and then the lyrics that we wrote together. From then on, I said, there is no stopping me. I must be unstoppable with this because look at the difference the song made ― for him, his family, his friends, and his loved ones. He told me that the song had given him a new peace of mind, knowing that the story we created through these lyrics will be heard again and again by all of his students, even when he is no longer there. He said this made it a little easier for him to go through the process of dying and to be able to let go."

Cancer patients give so much to their doctors, Dr Steven said.

"My patients have given me so much. I am so privileged to be with them. I want to tell them this: You teach your doctors how to live. You are giving more to us than you could ever imagine just by being with us and going through your day-to-day life, living with this horrible disease, and just showing up ― not giving up, but showing up for your treatment. This teaches us so much about courage, how to live, and how to be present and how not to be as distracted as so many of us are by the 'small stuff.' "

As for oncologists, he wishes more of them were in touch with the creativity that they possessed as children.

"The artist inside of you ― the poem writer, the little songwriter that you were as a child ― is still there, and you can share that and create something in your vocation with your patients. It doesn't have to be a song, it doesn't have to be what I do, but you can sit down next to your patient at the end of the visit and share something. You might say, 'Let's listen to your favorite song,' or 'Here's my favorite song,' or 'Here's one of my favorite Seinfeld bits,' and you watch a 2-minute Seinfeld bit on YouTube together, and you laugh together. It's this co-creation of a moment when you can break down the wall of the high and mighty doctor and just be two human beings sharing a little love as co-journeymen and women on this planet. That's where the healing comes between doctor and patient, and it is a co-experience."

Being an oncologist is a special vocation, Dr Steven says.

Dr Steven with a patient.

"It's a blessing. It is an honor and a privilege to be with people in this capacity. The best thing we can do as oncologists is to listen. Not just to wait for our turn to talk, but truly listen. Active listening is another healing part of the new physician's first amendment – 'physician, love they patient,' and the L in love stands for 'listen,' " he said.

Singing Breast Surgeon

Another singing oncologist is breast cancer surgeon Laura Esserman, MD, head of the Carol Franc Buck Breast Care Center at the University of California, San Francisco.

She sings to every patient that she operates on, and she too emphasizes how this creates a special relationship with them.

Singing to a patient "creates a connection, that you are doing something for them to take their mind off of what is about to happen," Dr Esserman explained in a recent interview with Eric J. Topol, MD, editor-in-chief of Medscape.

"You think about something that is meaningful in this moment," she continued. "The wonderful thing about medicine is the relationships you create. One of the songs that I particularly love to sing is the song 'For Good.' It is about how you have been changed for the better because of the people that you know and the experiences that you have had. I think that is true as a physician."

She sings to patients when they come into the operating room, before they are put under.

"It started when I was an early attending. Someone had a complication, and we were waiting for the anesthesiologist to come in the room. Everyone was just really anxious. I was anxious, the patient was getting more and more anxious, and she was on the blood pressure monitor. I could not think of anything else to do. I had just seen Phantom of the Opera the night before, so I just started singing "All I Ask of You." It's a beautiful song; it starts with 'No more talk of darkness....' Her systolic blood pressure dropped about 40 points. I am sure mine did too. She told me afterwards that that was the most incredible thing that had ever happened to her. I thought, now I can blend another skill that I bring to the table and something that I love to do.

"The wonderful thing about medicine is the relationships you create," she says. "Every person you meet changes you and informs you. It is part of your own heuristic about how you can tailor treatments to an individual person. If someone says, 'I really do not want to have this,' I don't say that someone refused therapy; I say that this person was told what the choices were. If they do not like what we have to offer, that is their choice. If you give someone a choice, you have to allow them to make a choice that you would not make. It is not you; it is not for you. It is for them."

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