October 6, 2009
Doctor Turns Cancer Victory Into Oncology Career
At the beginning of his senior year in high school, Amir Steinberg attended Yom Kippur services with his family in Houston and listened to what has since become known in their family as “the bitachon sermon,” referring to the Hebrew word for trust or faith.
The rabbi shared inspiring stories of people who had beaten the odds to achieve their goals, including his son, who had been shot and severely wounded during a robbery, yet lived to become a psychologist.
The message couldn’t have been timelier for Steinberg. Just weeks later, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of cancer that primarily affects people between the ages of 16 and 35.
Today, Dr. Amir Steinberg, who beat his cancer, is an oncologist, treating others who have received a similar diagnosis.
Steinberg, 34, joined the Blood and Marrow Transplant Program at Cedars-Sinai’s Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute last year, where he treats patients with myelomas, leukemias and lymphomas and conducts research on stem cell transplants.
As a cancer survivor, Steinberg began his medical career with an innate sense about a healthy bedside manner, something that can take other doctors years to learn.
“I try to be as reassuring and encouraging as possible, as my doctor was with me. I have a sense of how to develop a rapport and connection with my patients, and to get inside their heads fairly quickly,” he said.
Yet Steinberg doesn’t automatically tell patients about his own medical history. “It can’t seem contrived,” he said. “I only say something if the moment seems right.”
One such moment was when a college-aged patient with Hodgkin’s lymphoma appeared understandably depressed.
“I spoke to him as a confidant more than as doctor, and told him about my experience with cancer. It gave us an extra bond, and I told him the same thing that my doctor and parents told me: don’t give up, keep on fighting.” Fortunately, the patient did well.
During his treatment, Steinberg only missed a few days of his senior year, but exhaustion sidelined him from many basketball games.
“No one says it’s easy, but I’m also glad I got the cancer,” said Steinberg, who earned his medical degree from Texas Tech University School of Medicine. “I may not have become a doctor had I not gotten cancer, and I appreciate life more. Everything is beautiful to me: the flowers, my co-workers, family and friends. Even this desk is beautiful,” he said, smiling as he lightly slaps the smooth dark wood in his office.
While clinical studies haven’t provided proof, Steinberg is convinced that thinking positively has an unquantifiable benefit in the face of a serious medical diagnosis. One of his main priorities is to give that hope to all patients, regardless of age.
“Younger patients worry about being able to marry and have children, since cancer treatments can damage fertility, and also worry about not achieving their career goals. I try to instill hope in them that they can still get married and possibly have children, as I was able to do,” said Steinberg, who has a 1-year-old daughter. “I tell them, ‘All your dreams are still ahead of you.’ With older patients, I convey my belief that there is hope for everybody, even patients with late-stage cancers.”
With more than 12 million cancer survivors in the United States, long-term care and targeted health screenings are critically important for this population. Steinberg is helping to organize a new survivorship program at Cedars-Sinai to help patients deal with the risks of medical complications arising from previous treatments, including risks for other cancers and heart disease. The program’s initial focus is on patients with hematologic malignancies, such as lymphoma, leukemia and stem cell transplant survivors. Steinberg is currently developing long-term care guidelines for health care monitoring that the patients can take to their family physicians.
He becomes visibly animated when discussing developments in cancer treatment, particularly the use of stem cell transplantation, which can treat and possibly cure patients with far fewer side effects than previous regimens. He refers to Gleevec, chemotherapy in pill form, as a “wonder drug” for chronic myeloid leukemia, and points to promising treatments for breast cancer, lymphoma, multiple myeloma and even lung cancer, in the form of new medications and innovative combinations of treatments.
Despite such advances, some cancers resist treatment.
“It’s very difficult for me to give up on a patient,” Steinberg said of such situations. “It’s frustrating that we can’t cure everybody, but there is always hope for new therapies. The most important thing to remember is that life is precious; we need to live every day to its fullest.”