Cancer Doctor’s Discovery Impacts Life and Practice

By Ed Rabinowitz

Stephen Iacoboni is not an average physician. But his uniqueness has little to do with being a practicing medical oncologist or with being the director of a cancer center for nearly three decades. Rather, what draws attention to Iacoboni, co-medical director of the Kennewick General Hospital Hematology-Oncology program in Kennewick, Wash., is his interest in spirituality.

“While running and directing successful practices and clinics, I also developed an interest in the existential/spiritual issues that necessarily pervade cancer medicine,” Iacoboni says. That interest is the focus of his book, The Undying Soul: A Cancer Doctor’s Discovery (Sji Publishing, 2010), which chronicles his own journey through the wilderness of modern metaphysics as it interfaces with the terminally ill.

A transformation
Iacoboni grew up in Los Angeles and was raised in an Italian household as a very devout Roman Catholic. He came of age in the late 1960s with all the free thinking that went on at that time. He also found himself right in the middle of the scientific revolution that was taking place and bought into modernism as a scientific world-view. By his own admission, he became what is now known as a secular progressive, and lived that way for a long time.

“It took a long time for me to give up my attachment to my purely intellectual underpinnings to concede that there was a spiritual realm that transcended material reality,” Iacoboni explains. “That’s not an easy thing to do; especially the way society and our culture are constructed. All the electronics and stuff, it seems everything you need to know is in a smart phone, and there isn’t anything else.”

But for Iacoboni there was something else, and his changing beliefs in and approaches to healing have caused him a fair amount of social upheaval. However, he does not label himself as a crusader, and instead points out that he feels he’s more of a scientist than those who often criticize him.

“I understand the weaknesses of science,” he explains. “All paradigms are based on assumptions, and those assumptions need to be re-examined. And when you look at the assumptions of modern science, there are a lot of shortcomings. Those shortcomings are the very things that keep us from moving forward.”

A dramatic shift
Iacoboni says that his new perspective has dramatically altered his approach to practicing medicine.

“If you’re purely a materialist and you’re taking care of cancer patients, then your success is measured on the basis of the things we were trained to measure: response rates, tumor shrinkage, survival data, things like that,” Iacoboni says. “And of course, in oncology that can be frustrating, because half of the time you don’t get what you want response-wise.”

While he pursues those material end points, Iacoboni finds he is not as disappointed when specific responses don’t occur because he says that people are both material and spiritual creatures. So when chemotherapy no longer works, he finds other things to focus on.

The doctor’s approach to medicine isn’t the only thing that has changed, noting that he has been increasingly drawn to activities that offer intense exhilaration. In particular, equestrian stadium and cross-country jumping. He says that his constant closeness to those who were nearing the end of their lives made him realize that life is fleeting, and that there was no time like the present to go for the gusto.

“I realized that if you wait until you’re 60 to do certain things, you’re never going to do them,” says Iacoboni, noting that he chose equestrian events because of his natural love of for horses.

He finds the experience absorbing, because the rider needs to focus on the horse, which could buck or do something else unpredictable. He likens it to “sitting on a powder keg.”

Nevertheless, Iacoboni calls the experience immensely therapeutic. “I could have the worst day of my life, and then get out and get on the horse, and within 10 minutes of riding, nothing else in the world exists except me and the horse,” he says. “It utterly cleanses your mind of all the stress.”

Seeking new rewards
There is no denying that his interest in existential/spiritual issues can bring troubles. Iacoboni has lost some patients who didn’t like the message; who wanted him to push on with chemotherapy even when it might not have been in their best interests.

“I left a very lucrative practice to come to where I am now,” he explains. “It was unrewarding financially. But I am totally committed to the rewards that I seek. I’ve been in the trenches fighting cancer for 30 years, and I have my set of values that I won’t compromise. So when I have a patient come in to see me, and they say they read my book and it changed their life, and this happens every day, that’s the reward I seek.”