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Shinohara’s life and career defined by curiosity

Aug. 3, 2017, 10:04 AM

Radiation oncologist Eric Shinohara, M.D., MSCI, enjoys making a difference in the lives of his patients. (photo by John Russell)

Curiosity is the spark that has always energized and illuminated Eric Shinohara’s life — curiosity about the natural world, about other people and about how to help those individuals.

As medical director and an associate professor of Radiation Oncology at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center (VICC), Shinohara, M.D., MSCI, spends his days using the medical knowledge spurred by that curiosity to help cancer patients who need radiation treatment.

Born in Washington, D.C., and raised in nearby Maryland, Shinohara enjoyed exploring nature, but the best part of growing up in the region may have been the museums in the nation’s capital.

“I remember as a child going to the Smithsonian Institute and being fascinated by the Natural History museum and the aeronautical stuff.”

He was equally fascinated by his father’s work as a basic scientist at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) where he specialized in ophthalmology research.

“He used to take me to his lab when I was little, so I think from very early on I developed an interest in science. You’re always influenced by your parents’ interests, and he’s just very inquisitive by nature and I think it really fostered my interest in science and medicine,” Shinohara said.

A pathologist uncle and a family doctor also sparked his interest in medicine.

“I have vivid memories of seeing my pediatrician when I was a kid and just really thinking, ‘Wow that seems like a really interesting job.’”

After completing an undergraduate degree in Physiology and Neurobiology plus Japanese at the University of Maryland, Shinohara was accepted to Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. He wasn’t sure which specialty to pursue until “I had a couple of patient experiences where I had family members that I got really close with who were being treated for cancer and I realized I wanted that to be a part of what I did,” Shinohara said.

After completing his residency at the University of Pennsylvania, Shinohara was recruited back to VICC, where he specializes in treating genitourinary cancers and sarcomas.

“I was interested in urology and prostate cancer, and those interests shaped what I wanted to do as a radiation oncologist,” Shinohara said.

He is also a member of the VICC team that treats sarcomas, a rare form of soft tissue cancer.
Shinohara has been on the front lines during an era of improved radiation therapy for cancer.

“Twenty years ago a lot more radiation dose went to normal organs, and sometimes you would cause injury to those areas. Today, with better imaging we can better define the tumor, and with some sophisticated new radiation techniques we can really limit the dose to the normal organs,” he said.

These changes have made radiation oncologists more effective at eliminating tumors with fewer side effects for patients.

Shinohara says working in oncology also provides an opportunity to connect with patients during a vulnerable time in their lives.

“For the family members and the patient this is one of those pivotal moments in their lives that none of them will forget. When they learn that they have a diagnosis of cancer or they are going through cancer treatment, the physician has an opportunity to affect all of them in a profound way and leave a lasting memory, either as something tremendously unpleasant or where someone has really stepped in and tried to convey things in a way that they could at least take some comfort in. That is probably what I find most moving and what makes me want to come to work every day,” Shinohara said.

“I think sometimes it is the worst scenarios, with people who are the sickest, where you can make the biggest difference. How family members will remember their loved ones is so shaped by how you talk to them and comfort them.”

Living through adversity while maintaining hope is something Shinohara learned from his parents, who were both immigrants to America. His mother, who worked in computer programming and database management, is originally from Taiwan and his father is from Japan. They came to the United States following World War II.

“It’s always been interesting for me because my dad grew up in post-war Japan and I see pictures of him in his first school which was basically a wooden hut out in a mud field. I think about what it must have been like to grow up like that and how he emigrated afterwards by himself and the challenges he faced. I think that also goes a long way in shaping your view of the world and your ambitions,” Shinohara said.

To feed his curiosity about this richly diverse family background, Shinohara spent a year in Japan during undergraduate school.

“Part of it was reconnecting with my heritage. It was this black box since I hadn’t had a chance to go back. That was another huge formative experience, living abroad for a year. It was also reconnecting with family members, many of whom I’d never met before.”

Shinohara is now sharing his appreciation for the complexities of life and curiosity about the world with his wife, an insurance industry consultant, and his daughters.

“I love spending time with my wife and two daughters. With my kids, it’s sort of this weird déjà vu where now I’ll do the same thing my dad did with me. I’ll take my kids to the science museum or the zoo here in Nashville and see the joy in their faces as they are experiencing new things, asking questions and being inquisitive.

“It’s sort of like seeing a mirror of yourself at that age. I get a lot of joy watching them growing up and their interests developing.”

He also continues to challenge himself in new realms, including physical fitness. He has completed a couple of military-style obstacle course events known as “Spartan” races.

While he was on track and cross-country teams in high school, Shinohara says he was never athletic. Now he’s exploring the world of fitness and athleticism.

“I’ve had a lot of fun with it because it’s so different. I’m so used to doing things that are mentally challenging and to do something physical was an interesting, fun sort of way to step out of my comfort zone. Part of it was just wondering if I could I do this.

“I think as I’ve gotten older I’ve wanted to challenge myself and see if there are things I wouldn’t have thought to do, give them a try and find out what happens. Luckily I haven’t broken anything yet, so we’ll see.”

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