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Meet Dr. Phillip Zentner of Sharp HealthCare

Today we’d like to introduce you to Dr. Phillip Zentner.

Dr. Zentner, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
I’m a radiation oncologist and medical director of radiation oncology at the Douglas & Nancy Barnhart Cancer Center at Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center. Before I became a physician, I was deeply interested in the practice of yoga. In fact, I began practicing yoga when I was 13. My mom was my first teacher. I was one of five kids and the only one with an interest in yoga.

As my young adult life progressed, I was accepted to medical school at Vanderbilt University. Life became busy as it does for men and women studying to become physicians. There wasn’t really a place for the healing arts in medical school curriculum at that time. It would be years later that medicine would progress to be inclusive of the mind and spirit in addition to the body. So, I put yoga and those kinds of interests aside for a while.

I chose to specialize in radiation oncology and, later in my career, began seeing patients at Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center, which was preparing plans for a new cancer center. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to help create the vision for the cancer center. There were some truly visionary people who were part of that process as well.

We all agreed we wanted to create a place that brought these things together – science and technology, but also nature and healing. I liken it to the two wings of a bird: You need the science and technology, but if that’s all you have, that’s not healing, and you’re not going to fly. We designed every aspect of the Barnhart Cancer Center, from the physical building to the programs and services offered, to meet the needs of patients as well as their families and the community.

Around the same time, I earned certification in mindfulness from UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center, Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. This was a unique opportunity that was not geared toward physicians, but it’s been tremendously beneficial to my ability to deliver holistic cancer care.

Has it been a smooth road?
I would say my greatest struggle was learning to work with other people in sharing practices like mindfulness. Prior to my training at UCLA, I had no experience in doing things like leading classes and workshops. The UCLA program played a pivotal role in giving me the confidence I needed to become an effective teacher. The other ongoing challenge is that time and energy is limited.

My challenge is in balancing my medical practice with everything else I do. Each course I create is new, so I’m constantly going back and creating new content. This excites me, but it requires a tremendous amount of time and energy. The other struggle I would say is language and cultural barriers.

We’re proud to serve a diverse community in the South Bay, but I feel a responsibility to create things that everyone can access. I think we do this well at the Barnhart Cancer Center, but there is always more to do.

We’d love to hear more about what you do.
I’m fortunate to practice medicine at the Douglas & Nancy Barnhart Cancer Center, which is located on the Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center campus. The Barnhart Cancer Center is the only comprehensive cancer center in the entire South Bay, offering everything patients need from diagnosis through survivorship.

We have a number of support groups, offered in both English and Spanish, including the South Bay’s only support group for children affected by a parents’ cancer diagnosis. We take a unique approach to caring for not only patients, but also our families, and that definitely sets the Barnhart Cancer Center apart.

I’m proud that we consider patients’ entire spectrum of needs – physical, emotional, mental and spiritual.

What role has luck (good luck or bad luck) played in your life and business?
This is an interesting question, and I would answer it by saying that we never know if luck is good or bad. For example, I was only accepted to the program at UCLA because of what others would consider circumstances of bad luck. If you think of luck as only times of being fortunate, you’re not looking at it in a whole and complete way. Instances of “bad luck” have propelled me forward.

Good luck: When the Barnhart Cancer Center was being built, the timing was fortuitous that right as we were selecting the equipment, new technology came on the market. If the technology had been released even a month later, we would have missed it. And then more good luck, we had the opportunity to purchase this brand-new technology.

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