Lan Zentil was a poster girl for healthy living. The 38-year-old filled her spare time with rock climbing, tennis and stand-up paddle boarding in the surf that laps her hometown of Laguna Beach. In between, she kept watch over a husband, two young children and a thriving real estate business.
Then one day about a year ago, she sat in a chair, leaned back and felt a hard lump in her right shoulder. "It felt like a pingpong ball under my skin," Zentil says.
After seeing three doctors, one of whom told Zentil the lump "was nothing," she arrived in the office of Dr. Bang H. Hoang, director of the UC Irvine Health Multidisciplinary Sarcoma Center and associate professor of orthopaedic surgery. The lump wasn't "nothing." It was a chondrosarcoma, a rare type of bone cancer diagnosed in fewer than 500 Americans a year.
Hoang, a nationally recognized expert in sarcomas, told Zentil and her husband, Tony, that surgery to remove the mass could leave her with limited use of the shoulder—especially tough news for someone with Zentil’s energetic interests. He would do his best, Hoang said gently before introducing them to other specialists on staff.
"We walked out of there with our heads spinning," Zentil recalls. "But it felt so good to know there was such a network of research and information,” a center where experts collaborated and were versed in the latest advancements.
“We felt this is where we were supposed to be."
Now recovered with a fully functional right shoulder, Zentil is once again rock climbing, paddle boarding and playing tennis. She is awed by the fact that she found a world-class specialist for her rare cancer right in Orange County.
"We drive up and down the I-5 Freeway every day, passing the medical center, and we don't know the miracles going on there," she says.
It wasn't just a stroke of luck that Zentil found the care she needed in her own back yard. UC Irvine's Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center is the proud result of years of dedicated work to establish a top-of-the-line cancer center in the heart of Orange County.
Today, the cancer center serves patients with nearly every type of cancer—among them brain, breast, digestive, skin, gynecologic, head and neck, blood, lung, musculoskeletal and urologic. Since 1994, the center has been recognized by the National Cancer Institute as a comprehensive cancer center, a national mark of excellence and the only one in Orange County.
"That means the center has gone beyond the normal delivery of care and has thought about cancer in its entirety—from prevention to the delivery of care to survivorship to long-term follow-up of patients—and with the integration of research in everything we do," says Dr. Leonard S. Sender, the cancer center's director of clinical oncology services. "The delivery of tomorrow's care is what we do today."
The center is staffed with leading authorities in specific areas of cancer care, including Sender, a national expert on cancer in young adults. His highly regarded program focuses on the unique medical and psychosocial needs of young adults, such as how fertility and relationships are affected by cancer.
It's only one of many distinguished programs.
The cancer center's digestive cancers program is the only one in Orange County equipped with the kind of technology to assure state-of-the-art care. "For digestive cancers we have created a critical mass of the right people," Sender says. "We have developed an amazing portfolio of options for those patients. We've done that by putting together a sophisticated team of experts."
Another program, in urologic cancers, is renowned for pioneering surgical techniques such as robot-assisted, minimally invasive prostate cancer surgery. Dr. Thomas Ahlering, a national authority on urologic cancers, has developed surgical techniques to significantly minimize such side effects as sexual dysfunction and urinary incontinence in men with prostate cancer.
Team approach to care
Lan Zentil, however, wasn't the least bit interested in published papers or national awards when she checked into UC Irvine Medical Center for surgery in late January 2012. What she needed the most during her seven-day stay—in addition to skilled surgery—was some reassurance, a kind word, a smile. Her caregivers met that challenge, too.
"The nurses were angels," Zentil says. "My shoulder was in a sling, and the number-one thing I wanted to do was to go to the restroom on my own. The second thing was to take a shower. There was one nurse who said, 'Don't worry, honey, I'll wash your hair.' The way she did it was so loving. And sometimes she would just sit by my bedside and talk to me."
During a five-hour procedure, her doctor had removed the cancerous shoulder blade and painstakingly rerouted muscles to remaining healthy bone. "The primary goal was to take out all of the cancer and save her life. That was the first priority," Hoang says. "But I hoped by reattaching the muscles, I could preserve some of the function," allowing her to have nearly full use of her shoulder and arm and to resume her athletic pastimes.
It's the kind of case Hoang says can be done only in a university medical center. For Zentil's treatment, he drew upon the expertise of his colleagues at both the cancer center and the orthopaedic surgery department.
"These cases are very complex," he says. "I have colleagues, who are very good at what they do, to confer with and to discuss different treatment techniques and options. We have those interactions and resources at UC Irvine."
Becoming a cancer survivor
Post-surgery, a pathology report showed Zentil that required no further treatment. Last summer, the Zentil family celebrated her recovery with a paddle-boarding “palooza”—paddling across 40 California lakes over four weekends. She publicized the quest on a blog to raise money for UC Irvine Health cancer patients who need assistance with meals and transportation during treatment.
Early one morning, paddling on a lake so calm it was if she were gliding over a piece of glass, Zentil was filled with gratitude.
"Dr. Hoang was like a quilter. He did everything he could do to take out the cancer with as little damage as possible," she says. "Because of Dr. Hoang and the work he's doing and his research, lives are being saved. We think this only happens in New York or Los Angeles. But it's happening right here in Orange County."
For more information or to make an appointment with a UC Irvine Health cancer specialist, call 714-456-8000 or visit www.ucihealth.com.