Seven Questions

Dr. Oscar Goodman Jr.

The oncologist discusses his upbringing, the latest in cancer research and what it will take for him to become the third Goodman to run for mayor
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Photo by Anthony Mair

Within 60 seconds of meeting Oscar Goodman Jr. it becomes quite apparent that the only thing he has in common with his famous father is that name. Whereas Oscar Sr. is boisterous, basks in the spotlight (usually with a showgirl on either side of him) and loves to swill gin, Oscar Jr. is understated, most comfortable behind the scenes (usually in a lab peering through a microscope) and can’t stomach his father’s martinis.

The eldest of Oscar and Carolyn Goodman’s four adopted children, Oscar Jr. was class valedictorian at Clark High School in 1987, and upon graduation he headed east for college and medical school, eventually landing in New York as an oncologist. He returned in mid-2007 when he accepted an oncology position with the Nevada Cancer Institute, where he specializes in prostate, gastrointestinal and genitourinary cancers.

We recently caught up with Goodman in his modestly sized office, which gives no indication to a first-time visitor that this is where the 42-year-old son of not one but two Las Vegas mayors goes about his daily routine.

What was it like growing up the eldest of the Goodman clan?

It was a great upbringing. Always a little added pressure as the oldest to set the bar for the rest of the family. But at the same time that was a great motivator for me. It led me to excel, and my parents always emphasized two things: One is the importance of education in general, and No. 2, thinking about someone besides yourself, what you can do to help other people. That’s what led me early on to think about going into some sort of a career that would help people. And I happened to be best in science and math, so it was a natural fit for me to become a scientist and ultimately a physician.

Was there a moment in your youth when you knew you wanted to go into medicine?

My grandfather, who had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, moved in with us and spent the last eight months of his life with us. I was about 9 years old, and I sort of watched him deteriorate. That was the first seed and when I realized there was something called cancer and it was killing people. I also had experiences with my parents, my mom particularly. She used to smoke, and when I learned there was a connection between cigarettes and cancer, I would steal her cigarettes and matches and throw them away. She finally was able to quit in the late ’70s, early ’80s, and I think that’s one of the reasons she’s healthy today.

Did you ever try to take away your dad’s gin?

No. That I couldn’t have gotten away with!

Your parents are both highly accomplished, and they adopted four children who ended up being highly accomplished as well. How did that happen?

It was the upbringing. And it really speaks to the environment vs. the genes [debate]; I think we’re a case study! But it really says that it’s the environment that makes the difference, and particularly parenting. It’s a huge part of the upbringing. It’s probably 80 percent, and schools are the other 20 percent. And my parents really bestowed values on all of us. I heard the golden rule a million times: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” And whenever you decide to do something, don’t just think of yourself; think of others.

What was your first reaction when you first heard that your dad was running for mayor?

I said, “Oh, no!” I was surprised initially, but when he said the reason he wanted to do it was because he wanted to give back to the community, in keeping with how I was brought up, that seemed quite reasonable to me. And I thought, “Wow this city would be really lucky. He’s got this great opportunity to make a huge difference.” I was very proud of him.

Was there any pressure growing up with your father’s name?

No, the only thing I didn’t like was they used to nickname me “Obi” and it used to drive me berserk. I had to learn all about Star Wars … I had to learn who this Obi-Wan person was. And when I did, I wasn’t that happy about it. But later on, I was very proud to have the name; I never wanted to change it. I did have to ask my second-grade teacher to stop calling me Obi, though.

Why will your mom make a great mayor?

She loves this city; she’s dedicated her life to [the community]. In fact this is her first paying job in 30 years. She worked for free for almost 30 years for The Meadows School. So she’s doing this for all the right reasons. She’ll be phenomenal. I sat with her during the early days before The Meadows was formed, and I watched how she basically brought the community together. So she is—and I hate to use a cliché from the campaign—but she is a consensus-builder. I’ve never met anybody else like her.

Which of the Goodman kids is most likely to follow in the mayoral footsteps?

That’s a good question. Probably one of my brothers. Although my sister possibly. Patients ask me if I’m going to run, and my answer is quite simple: If I put myself out of business as a researcher because we found a cure for cancer, then I’ll run for mayor.

What kind of progress are we seeing on the cancer front?

We’re in sort of a paradox because what we’re seeing now is that for the first time treatments are extending survival. That means patients are living longer, which is great, but it’s also driving up the cost of health care, and that’s coming back and biting us. It means there’s less money available to do research; the opportunities for peer-review funding are really dwindling. So it’s almost like our progress is hampering us. But I think we’re going to get there. What we’re learning is cancer is a very individual disease; no one cancer is the same. … That being said, there are commonalities between various cancers, so what we’ll be able to do over time is come up with strategies that are individualized to eliminate cancer in an individual.

Is medical tourism a realistic option for our economic diversification?

I believe medical tourism is very much a real thing … and I think Las Vegas is a natural fit. Many diseases are diseases of the elderly, and elderly people in general like to come to Las Vegas because many medical conditions are improved in climates like ours. That coupled with the fact that Las Vegas is a natural tourist destination makes medical tourism an absolute plus to develop here. I’ve had a number of conversations with my dad about this while he was mayor, and I think he sees that as a vision and I think it’s a great vision. And my mom is very supportive of this. The big thing we need to work on as a community is to make this an attractive place to live, and that means developing everything else like infrastructure, education. Having a place where children can get [quality] schooling is critical to get families to move here.

So what does Las Vegas need from our educational institutions to become a first-rate medical destination?

We need across-the-board improvement in higher learning. Just going back to the three Rs, the basic training for the children so they can hold up to the measures. But as I mentioned earlier, schooling is probably only about 20 percent of it. You need parents that are concerned as well. Getting community involvement, both within the household and out of the household, will help. … But I think education is the key here.

Genetic situations aside, what’s your one piece of advice for staying cancer-free?

Diet and exercise. We’re starting to learn that there’s a very strong connection between your body’s condition and the ability for cancer cells to root. Think of it as soil for the cancer cells. If you add Miracle-Gro to soil—which in the case of cancer would be unhealthy eating—the cancers will get in the roots and start growing. We’re starting to see strong evidence of a connection.

The first thing I personally do when I get up in the morning is exercise, even if I get yelled at by my wife for doing it on the weekend. I tell her, “I’m 42 now; I’ve got to stay healthy so I can help my patients as long as I can”—and hopefully run for mayor.

What’s your opinion of heath-care reform?

The danger we’re facing here is [that] research funding is dwindling. That’s actually the killer. If we do more research, we’ll come up with treatments that will actually reverse this health-care cost differential over time. If there’s one thing we can do—and it hasn’t been mentioned by any of the politicians—is to fund more research. Now, I am biased because I’m a scientist. But I can tell you that that’s the only solution. You can rearrange the chairs on the deck of a sinking ship, which is sort of what’s going on [with health care], but it seems to me like we’re shooting ourselves in the feet right now.

Finally, there’s the burning question: How do you drink your gin?

Once in a lifetime. I’ve only had one glass of gin in my life, and it’ll be my last one. That actually makes my dad happy, because any gin I get, I give to him.

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