Cancer gets personal for Marin oncologist

Peter Eisenberg and MIJ

Richard Halstead from the Marin Independent Journal, writes about Dr. Peter Eisenberg, a prominent oncologist who has been treating Marin cancer patients for more than 36 years, return to work after experiencing his own brush with the dreaded disease.

Dr. Peter Eisenberg, a prominent oncologist who has been treating Marin cancer patients for more than 36 years, has returned to work after experiencing his own brush with the dreaded disease.

Listening to Eisenberg, 68, recount his successful surgery for thyroid cancer in July, however, one might think he'd just recovered from nothing more serious than a bad cold.

"Look, this is a bump in the road. I had a little cancer, just slightly over a centimeter in diameter," Eisenberg said. "Frankly, I see people all day long who are quite ill, and I couldn't really mount a level of concern given how brave most of my patients are."

Thyroid cancer grows slowly and, when discovered early, has a high cure rate.

Eisenberg founded an oncology practice in Marin in 1978 that has become Marin Specialty Care, a group practice consisting of 13 doctors and support staff adjacent to Marin General Hospital in Greenbrae. Marin Specialty Care works in close cooperation with the hospital's Marin Cancer Institute and Eisenberg serves as Marin General's medical director for oncology services.

Facing mortality

Eisenberg said nodules were spotted on his thyroid, a butterfly-shaped gland at the base of the neck, about a year ago during a CT scan for another medical issue that turned out not to be serious. At that point, there was no reason for Eisenberg to assume the tumor was cancerous.

"The majority of thyroid nodules are going to be benign," said Dr. Romeo Agbayani, the Greenbrae surgeon who operated on Eisenberg.

A subsequent biopsy, however, indicated papillary thyroid cancer, a common form of the disease that most often affects people ages 30 to 50.

While Eisenberg downplays the hardship generated by his diagnosis, he acknowledges the experience drove home the fact of his mortality and caused him some worry about the future of his wife and daughters, who are ages 10, 12 and 24.

"That's the scariest thing to me," he said, regarding his family's welfare.

Second diagnosis

This wasn't Eisenberg's first experience with cancer. In his 20s, when he was in medical school, Eisenberg was diagnosed with a slow-growing type of blood cancer, polycythemia vera, after suffering a mild heart attack. The disease causes bone marrow to make too many red blood cells, which can thicken blood and produce clots.

"I've been treated for this with chemo-like drugs for a number of years," Eisenberg said.

With proper treatment, many people with the disease experience few problems. Eisenberg was a triathlete before his knees limited his running; he still rides his bike to work from San Anselmo.

Eisenberg said he learned several things dealing with the thyroid cancer.

First, "The skill of doctors is widely variable in giving news," Eisenberg said. "That should not be a surprise to anybody."

Eisenberg wouldn't elaborate on who taught him this lesson; he declined to identify the doctor who gave him his diagnosis.

"We're not going there," he said.

Eisenberg said Agbayani, a longtime friend of his, definitely knows the right way to deal with nervous patients and their families. Agbayani met with Eisenberg and his wife, Elizabeth Shortino, prior to the surgery.

Agabayani said he could sense that both Eisenberg and his wife were apprehensive when he spoke to them. Agabayani said in Eisenberg's case his knowledge of cancer may have been a double-edged sword.

"A little knowledge can be dangerous, so a lot of knowledge can be very dangerous," Agabayani said. "Your mind tends to run away, and you think of the worse-case scenario."

Providing comfort

Eisenberg said, "He was so reassuring I cannot even begin to tell you. Once he laid out the whole situation, the level of anxiety was reduced significantly."

Shortino said, "When Peter told me about the results of his biopsy I was completely frightened and felt like my worst nightmare was coming true. It all seemed so surreal. Thankfully his partner and our good friend, Dr. Jennifer Lucas, talked me down off the ledge and said all the right things."

She added, "A few days later when we saw Dr. Agbayani I was further reassured."

Eisenberg said some of his colleagues were surprised to learn he was having his surgery done at Marin General instead of the University of California at San Francisco.

"My response was, 'If Marin General is good enough for my patients, it is good enough for me,'" Eisenberg said.

After the surgery at Marin General, Eisenberg spent just one night in the hospital, and he returned to work three weeks later.

Eisenberg said another lesson he gleaned from the ordeal was that acts of compassion by friends and family — a neighbor cooking a meal or a friend sending a card — can serve as an elixir when one is ill.

"It really is therapeutic," Eisenberg said. "I always understood that from an intellectual point of view, but now I understand it from a heart-felt point of view."