Wendy Borden knows the terror of cancer. She can tell you all about the holes and shreds it can rip into everyday existence.
She comes from a family where cancer runs strong.
Her mom has been diagnosed with breast cancer twice. Her uncle has advanced metastasized prostate cancer. Both of their parents died of cancer.
So when a small spot showed up on her mammogram in 2012, her fears spiked.
“It was so small,” said Borden, 43 at the time. “My mom was diagnosed in 2009. She said, ‘You get back there and get a biopsy.’
“The worst of my cancer never showed up on an MRI or mammogram,” she said. “We are very lucky those little spots even showed up. It makes it more nerve-wracking knowing things don’t show up on a mammogram.”
Three weeks after Borden’s breast cancer diagnosis, her mom got a diagnosis for the second time.
“It’s probably a gene, but they don’t know which one it is,” Borden said.
Borden underwent a mastectomy on her birthday—Sept. 4, 2012—followed by eight reconstruction surgeries, with the final one in September 2016.
“It was a very long and debilitating journey,” said Borden, a single parent raising a then-3-year-old son. “And I was on my own journey. I was fairly new to Grand Rapids and I don’t have much family or support structure. We didn’t have anybody to bring us meals.”
A wicked spiral
After one of her surgeries, Borden hired a home health care service to try to keep up with life, which at the time seemed insurmountable.
“I just finished my masters’ degree (in nutrition), managing a young child, my mom had cancer, my uncle is still going through it,” she said. “He has no children so I’m his support. We’re a very, very small family, which is part of the challenge.”
On top of all that, she endured eight reconstruction surgeries over three years.
“It was very exhausting, it was debilitating,” she said. “It takes a while to recover from surgery and I kept having them over and over. I wasn’t able to work. I had to hire a home health care service even though it was outside what I felt I could afford.”
One of the home health care nurses wrote in her notes that Borden looked frail, gaunt and had poor coloring. She questioned why Borden continued to cook for herself and her mother instead of resting.
Cancer and surgeries sapped her energy. She cooked, but she wasn’t cooking healthy food.
“We weren’t well-nourished,” she said. “As somebody who has a background in nutrition, I knew how important it was to eat healthy, but I physically could not do that.
“When you’re going through cancer, it’s a time in your life when you have a tremendous need for nourishment—but you don’t have the capacity to provide that for yourself.”
It’s a wicked spiral, one that continued to spin downhill.
Surgery creates weight-lifting limits. Fresh fruits and vegetables are heavy.
She couldn’t lift what her body needed most.
“If you use your arms, you’re moving the tissue around in your chest,” Borden said. “It made it incredibly difficult to carry a pot of water or haul groceries into the house. I was trying to take care of a child, help my mother and take care of myself. It was just exhausting.”
From the pits of her experience came the true fruits—she started a new program for cancer patients who also find it difficult to cook while combating cancer, modeled after a program she knew about in California.
Filling a niche
It’s called Revive and Thrive.
Under the guidance of a chef and adult volunteers, teenagers team up in a church kitchen once a week to prepare meals for cancer patients. Volunteers then deliver the meals and provide ongoing support and nutritional education.
Borden is trying to fulfill the niche service she lacked during her battle.
“I had the knowledge to eat healthy,” she said. “I had the resources to provide that healthy food. I just didn’t have the ability to put that healthy meal on the table. I thought, ‘There must be other people in my situation.’”
There were. And are.
Revive and Thrive delivers meals to 22 people each week.
She hopes to expand the program soon to two days a week to be able to serve more people.
Borden said it’s a win for the cancer patients and also for the teenagers, as they’re learning to cook healthy meals.
“We’re teaching the next generation of parents and educators and policymakers how to eat healthy and how to cook,” Borden said. “I didn’t have cooking skills when I went off to college. They’re learning to cook from scratch, while learning the importance of serving those in need.”
The program provides meals to some family members, too, since a battle with cancer can also affect the caregiver’s nutritional status.
Each week, volunteers deliver four complete entrees, a quart of soup, quart of broth, two salads and one healthy dessert.
“They’re all cooked, ready to reheat,” Borden said.
The goal is to reduce stress, reduce isolation and support nourishment for cancer patients.
“Eighty percent of cancer patients tend to be malnourished—and now I know why that’s true,” she said. “It’s very hard to provide food for yourself. Being well-nourished can help treatments be more effective and can reduce the risk of other complications.
“I think our program is like an artichoke,” she said. “We provide much more than meals. We provide support, nutrition advice and tools for survivorship.”
Marianne Melnik, MD, a Spectrum Health Medical Group surgical oncologist at the Spectrum Health Cancer Center treats both Borden and her mom.
Borden had a “very favorable cancer” and is doing well, according to Dr. Melnik.
Dr. Melnik is a firm believer in the benefits of Revive and Thrive.
“I think her program is awesome, both for the participants and the patients and the students who prepare the meals,” the doctor said.