At age 28, Gloria Borges was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. She was given a year to live.
Two years later, however, this Latina is tackling her disease head on, and has partnered with her physician, Dr. Heinz-Josef Lenz, to find a viable cure through the work of the Wunder Project.
The Wunder Project is a movement with a mission to cure colon cancer within 10 years. The movement will call upon corporate donors, grants and personal donations to raise $250 million in a two-year fundraising campaign, with all funds going directly toward research.
The Wunder Project is an initiative from the WunderGlo Foundation, the nonprofit that launched in September 2011. The board of directors consists of attorneys, business and health professionals, and experts in marketing and public relations.
Colon cancer is the second most commonly diagnosed cancer in Hispanics. It's also the second leading cause of cancer death among Hispanic males, and third among Hispanic females, according to the American Cancer Society. In the past decade, the incidence of colon cancer in Hispanics has increased.
Borges, now 31, has taken a leave of absence from O'Melveny & Myers LLP, where she is an attorney specializing in business litigation. She has represented major corporations, immigrant children and the elderly.
Her Wunder Project partner, Dr. Lenz, is the associate director for Clinical Research and co-leader of the Gastrointestinal Cancers Program at the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center. He also is an active researcher, and focuses on topics such as the regulation of gene expression involved in drug resistance, patients at high risk of developing colorectal cancer, and determination of carcinogenesis.
HispanicBusiness wanted to know more about what motivated Borges to not only fight cancer in her personal life, but for those around the world as well.
HB: Tell us a little bit about growing up in a Hispanic home.
GB: Growing up in a Hispanic home meant one thing above all others: that family is extremely important. My family is very close-knit, honest and fun, so growing up was a great experience for me. From the very beginning of my life, I felt that there were many people who supported me, believed in me and 'had my back,' in general. Those people were my family members. Having that kind of foundation was key in shaping the confident person that I am today.
HB:When you were diagnosed, something inside you must have clicked -- attitude shift, maybe. If so, tell us more about what was going on in your life and how you were able to fight cancer.
GB: I am a very competitive person -- and that's probably an understatement. When I was told about my diagnosis, that competitive spirit didn't just kick in -- it exploded. I immediately saw this as a fight: me vs. cancer, and I certainly wasn't going to lose. My prognosis was quite grim at first, but it didn't phase me at all. I remember my mom saying, 'The cancer is very aggressive,' to which I responded: 'Well, I'm an aggressive girl.'
HB:Is there information/research as to why Hispanics are contracting colon cancer at such a high rate?
GB: There are studies out there about Hispanics and colon cancer, not just about contracting the disease but how Hispanics do in treatment. One study, about the connection between Hispanic patients and response to certain types of chemotherapy drugs, was recently published by one of my oncologist's colleagues at USC Norris, Dr. Afsaneh Barzi. I think there is a good amount of information out there about Hispanics and colon cancer but, as with almost everything in the cancer world, there is much more work to be done.
HB: What are some preventative measures Hispanics can take against colon cancer?
GB: Diet and fitness are key for overall health, and colon health as well. I advise patients and non-patients alike to avoid processed meats (that includes cured meats like salami, hot dogs, "lunch meat") and red meat, and to eat as much of a plant-based diet as possible. Also, exercise is key for maintaining a strong immune system, which is also important to maintaining good health. And if someone has any change in their digestive function -- like more frequent trips to the bathroom or a change in bowel movement consistency -- they need to see a doctor sooner than later. Pushing for a colonoscopy when experiencing gastrointestinal issues is so important, and catching pre-colon cancer polyps cuts your chances of getting colon cancer quite dramatically.
HB: What advice can you give to those battling cancer?
GB: I have two big pieces of advice. The first is to eliminate animal protein from your diet. Through my own personal research and after seeing the documentary "Forks Over Knives," I realized that the connection between consumption of animal protein (that means meat and dairy) and cancer growth was too strong to ignore. I became a vegan just months after my diagnosis.
The second thing I would tell other cancer warriors is to never lose hope. Believe in yourself, get the best doctors to take care of you, and do everything you can on your end to make your body, mind, and spirit as strong as possible for this journey.
Even if a patient succumbs to cancer, their quality of life will be far, far better if they have a positive attitude than if they allow fear and anger to take over. Nobody has a set amount of years that they are "supposed" to live, so approaching life with gratitude and joy makes for a better quality of life regardless of the physical challenges -- I know this because I live it every day.
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