Family of four plays at the beach with coastline in background

A whole-person approach to breast cancer care

February 04, 2021 | Angela Kuiper
Meredith Ehrenberg and Tyler Martin take a selfie as they join the 4th annual UCI Anti-Cancer Challenge on Oct. 3, 2020.

Meredith Ehrenberg and boyfriend Tyler Martin get ready to join the UCI Anti-Cancer Challenge on Oct. 3, 2020. It was her chance to help raise funds for research at the UCI Health Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center. 

On the day of her breast cancer surgery at UCI Medical Center last March, Meredith Ehrenberg’s surgeon asked her a question she wasn’t expecting: "What kind of music do you want to hear when we wheel you in?"

Studies show that playing a patient’s favorite music as they enter an operating room can be calming and lower their blood pressure, Dr. Kari Kansal told her. To Ehrenberg, it was yet another example of how her breast cancer team values a whole-person approach to care.

“At UCI Health, my cancer treatment wasn’t just about removing illness, but creating wellness — in body and mind," Ehrenberg says. "The compassion and skill of my surgeons, oncologist and other care providers gave me the best possible clinical outcome. Today I am cancer-free, and with ongoing treatment, I plan to stay that way.”

Early diagnosis

Ehrenberg had been getting mammograms every six months for a few years after radiologist Dr. Freddie J. Combs noticed some calcification in her left breast.

During her scheduled six-month check-up at UCI Health Pacific Breast Care Center in February 2020, Combs spotted something concerning in her right breast, not her left. He immediately scheduled a same-day ultrasound.

Based on those results, Combs recommended a biopsy, which confirmed a malignancy. Because the cancer was caught so early, he reassured Ehrenberg that her prognosis was good. “You are not going to die of this,” he told her.

On the recommendation of another breast cancer survivor, Ehrenberg made an appointment with Kansal, a breast surgeon who had recently joined UCI Health from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. Kansal presented her with a range of treatment options. After considering all of the possibilities, Ehrenberg chose to have both breasts removed.

A family history

Her maternal grandmother had had breast cancer, so the decision was very easy. “I never really entertained surgical solutions that were less invasive,” she says.

Ehrenberg began feeling very emotional about her diagnosis, often finding herself in tears at doctor’s appointments. Kansal’s compassionate and understanding manner helped her get through that challenging time.

Then on March 23, 2020, she had a double mastectomy — with U2’s “Joshua Tree” album playing in the operating room.

“I was super fortunate that I ended up leaving the hospital that day not just with both breasts removed, but with my reconstruction well on the way to completed,” Ehrenberg says. She was even more relieved about her decision when the post-surgery pathology assessment found cancer cells in the tissue of her left breast that had previously gone undetected.

She has quarterly follow-ups at the UCI Health Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center with oncologist Dr. Paul Coluzzi, who manages her hormone treatments. Because her cancer was caught so early, she didn’t need radiation or chemotherapy.

'Like family'

From diagnosis to post-operative treatment, Ehrenberg has nothing but praise for her UCI Health team, marveling that her care was not solely about her cancer and how to treat it.

Kansal has referred her for physical therapy sessions and even recommended acupuncture, as well as some nutritional changes. This whole-person approach is the essence of the UCI Health Cancer Support and Survivorship program, which is led by Coluzzi. In addition, Pacific Breast Care Center physicians work closely with the Susan Samueli Integrative Health Institute to offer their patients supportive care.l 

Since her diagnosis, Ehrenberg's doctors have consistently treated her with such compassion that she now thinks of them “like family.”

"I feel so fortunate to have had such incredible care. My care team took into consideration my personal treatment goals and preferences. I feel grateful that I was able to have a voice in my treatment plan.”

Her plastic surgeon, Dr. Amber Leis, is also “100 percent amazing,” Ehrenberg says. Nearly a year after her double-mastectomy, she feels very privileged to be having conversations with Leis about the aesthetics of her breast revision surgery scheduled for November.

“We're no longer talking about whether or not I have cancer,” she says.

A way to give back

Besides being a UCI Health patient, Ehrenberg is a UCI employee and a wellness ambassador on the university campus in Irvine. When she learned about last year's virtual UCI Anti-Cancer Challenge to raise money for cancer research, she volunteered to be a team captain.

She even solicited co-workers to join her fundraising team. “Because my diagnosis was so new, it gave me a way to share with some who didn't know that I had been through this,” Ehrenberg says.

After eight weeks of virtual fitness challenges to get ready, participants were asked to track their ride, run or walk with a special app on Challenge Day, Oct. 3, and to post photos on social media.

Had the COVID-19 pandemic not forced the traditional Anti-Cancer Challenge festival to be held as a virtual event, Ehrenberg would have been able to walk with her UCI colleagues and other breast cancer survivors. Instead, her boyfriend, Tyler Martin, joined her on a 3.1-mile walk. Although he’s “not really into exercise,” she says, he told her, “I won’t let you walk alone.”

“He knew that I'm still trying to find my way, to understand what this means to me emotionally and how to be part of this community,” she says. “I think part of why the Anti-Cancer Challenge works for so many people is that it's an opportunity for families, friends and co-workers to get involved and to physically manifest support for that person on that day.”

Registration for the 5th annual UCI Anti-Cancer Challenge — a virtual festival with eight weeks of activities leading up to Challenge Day, Aug. 14 — opens March 1 at ›