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Human Interest

Meet the Cancer Doctor Who Sings to His Patients: ‘I Want People to Smile’

Updated

The chemo room of this San Diego oncology practice is adorned with brown recliners and intravenous stands. But on a recent Monday, Dr. Steven Eisenberg wasn’t planning on administering chemotherapy.

Settling into a chair, he faces Dawn Mannino, 38, whose advanced stage 4 breast cancer is now in remission. He strums a guitar and sings a song to her he’d written the night before, the deeply personal lyrics honed from a conversation the doctor had with her husband.

“My gosh, I’m so deeply touched that someone would take the time and care so much to go through all this,” says Mannino of the serenade. “He wanted to capture my spirit, and he did. That is very healing, the sweetest thing ever.”‘

Scores of studies

Dr. Eisenberg with patient Dawn Mannino
Kyle T. Garrett

have shown the healing power of music for cancer patients, that it can help alleviate pain and increase quality of life. Eisenberg takes it further and composes songs for many of his patients, which he’s found brings them hope and joy.

“I want people to smile,” Eisenberg says. “It’s about sharing and connection, so you can use this as an anthem to rally through these treatments.”

He knows from personal experience. About a decade ago, Eisenberg was suffering from stress-induced colitis , an inflammation of the colon.

After winning a story-writing contest, the prize was a song his favorite artist, Peter Himmelman, wrote for him. When Eisenberg discovered he felt much better from Himmelman’s tune, “I had to do it for my patients,” he says.

Since then, Eisenberg has written over 100 songs. He’ll ask patients questions about their passions, their hobbies, about what leaves them smiling.

 

Dr. Eisenberg and Dawn Mannino
Kyle T. Garrett

He goes home and lets the idea “marinate,” he says, handwriting lyrics with pen and paper, and leaves a copy with every patient, along with a recording.

“This is the guy that treats the person and not just the disease,” says patient Roger Gagos, 73, who has multiple myeloma, an uncommon form of blood cancer.

When Eisenberg sang Gagos and his wife their song, about the couple’s passion for RVing, “I was very emotional,” says Gagos. “The depth of his caring, and understanding where we were coming from… he connects with us.”

As Mannino says: “Dr. Eisenberg is one in a million.”

Eisenberg says he receives as much as he gives. “There are a lot of days when you are sharing bad news,” he says, “but the song is always good news. It’s about love. And that reminds me why I wanted to be a doctor. I just want to help people.”