Doctor and Wife Nearly Split Over Cancer Diagnosis, Holistic Healing

PHOTO: Walter and Corinne Borden
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The first signs of what would turn out to be a virulent cancer began at Christmas, when newlywed Corinna Borden was visiting family, hundreds of miles away from her husband. In bed that night, an intense pain welled up under her right breast. She was only 29.

She called her husband Walter, a doctor finishing his residency in Michigan, and he asked a few diagnostic questions -- "Do you have a fever and did you vomit?" -- then said it was likely a gall bladder problem.

Borden took an Advil and turned to a homeopathic remedy, a cleanse that involved drinking Epsom salts with grapefruit juice, then a big glass of olive oil, followed by apple juice.

After months of tests that baffled an array of doctors, Borden was diagnosed with stage-four Hodgkin's lymphoma and she began a dual battle to stay alive and to keep her one-year marriage intact.

Her husband, Dr. Walter Parker, was committed to Western medicine. Borden embarked on a lonely journey to heal herself.

Borden, now 34, said the desire to write a book and its title, "I Dreamt of Sausage," came in a dream, but she writes in her postscript that the book is more than a memoir that it's a "story about recognizing the voices in your head and knowing which ones to listen to."

The couple had dated for five years before they were married and Parker was used to her self-medicating through holistic methods. Borden's mother left a career with the World Bank in Washington, D.C., to go into energy healing.

"I learned to create a mantra around the cancer," said Borden. "I turned my mindset around. Faith in miracles happens every day."

Parker, now 36, said that he was used to his wife's herbal "self-medicating."

"But that was nothing in my eyes compared to a cancer diagnosis," he said. "That's the way I am trained. You go with the evidence, what people have learned works."

Borden's pain escalated after she returned to their new home in Ann Arbor, Mich., far from the comfort of family and friends in Washington, D.C..

For weeks, while Parker was working marathon shifts at the hospital, she would clench a pillow against her stomach sobbing, until the Vicodin she was popping like candy kicked in.

"I can understand addiction to pain killers," she said. "Living with pain you become irrational."

On their first anniversary, they had to leave a celebratory dinner at a local restaurant. Borden says she ended up in fetal position waiting for the drugs to kick in and kill the pain of a "hot poker" in her belly.

"This is the pain makes me want to crawl out of my skin," she writes.

Parker was baffled by his wife's pain.

"As much as medical school teaches you, there is so much depth and nuance that I had a lack of understanding about what was going on," he said. "I was overworked and frustrated. I just felt completely like I couldn't do anything to help."

After numerous visits to specialists, Borden was eventually diagnosed by her general practitioner who found the cancer.

"To be honest, it was kind of a relief to know what I was dealing with after months of not knowing," she said. But the word "cancer" reverberated in her head and she was paralyzed with fear.

The couple's plans to get pregnant were dashed with the diagnosis and cancer treatments stopped their sex life cold.

Borden started six weeks of chemotherapy, but her husband was rarely around to support her.

"He would go to work at 6 in the morning and come home at 10 at night," she said. "We'd have a half-hour conversation and sometimes, he'd fall asleep. I would say, 'I don't want to love and he'd be sleeping. I was so angry at him -- not just at him but at the hospital for offering choices that take away my fertility and my quality of life.

"They had stolen my husband and my health," Borden said. "It was like a double whammy.

"I felt Walter was choosing his job over taking care of me," she said. "I felt all alone."

While she endured conventional therapy, Borden juggled energy healing, nutritional supplements, a macrobiotic diet and acupuncture. One energy therapist asked her to trace her emotions: "Whenever you're angry, resentful, full of self-hatred or unhappy -- all of those emotions feed into your nervous system and send your body conflicting messages," he told her.

Parker resented the philosophy that implied the cancer was her fault and she didn't "try hard enough" to fix her body.

But Borden didn't want to be a "passive recipient of a cure," relying only on what she saw as the limited vision of her doctors.

"How could I take ownership of what I eat and how much I sleep and exercise?" she wondered. "Those are things I can control."

She became so stressed that Borden worried that the inflammation in her body was also running rampant.

At the end of chemotherapy, emotionally and physically spent, Borden nearly broke down in the hospital elevator on the way home.

Later, the CT scan showed the chemo may not have done its job. There was a "residual hot spot" near the esophagus, which could not be biopsied because it was too close to her vena cava, the major vein in the body.

Borden said she faced the frightening news by herself as her husband was, yet again, at the hospital.

The next line of defense was bone marrow transplant. She even tried a clinical trial, but her white blood count dropped so low, she had to stop for fear of infection. She refused to follow doctors' orders and ate lettuce, which they said could cause infection.

"I chose to follow my own health -- it was not working with an oncologist," she said.

At the worst point in their relationship, Borden went off to Mexico on her own for six weeks to seek alternative treatment.

"It was really good for me to realize I had to get my own stuff under control," she said. "Me lashing out at Walter wasn't helping anybody."

She was infused with a cocktail of experimental herbs and B17, which is illegal in the United States.

"I realized, first of all, that it wasn't a spa," she said, as she watched a disheveled man examine her blood under a microscope.

Borden said she just wanted reassurance from Parker that this was the right decision. "I want you to tell me chemotherapy is the work of the corporate devil," she said.

"I was afraid of what she was doing," Parker said. "In the end, she did her own thing. I decided I can't continue this fight and kill the marriage or accept it and love the woman I am with."

Borden, too, had missed her husband in Mexico and realized she wanted to "feed our marriage love -- not anger and fear -- because every moment in precious."

Today, she is in remission and the couple has moved to Rhinebeck, N.Y., where Parker is finishing his residency and Borden is committed to becoming a farmer and growing organic food.

She still follows a "holistic regime" and a strict diet and with doctors keeps track of her urine count and body inflammation, rather than relying in PET or CT scans.

Cancer treatments have rendered Borden post-menopausal, but earlier doctors were able to freeze two of her eggs. The couple recently met with an infertility doctor to try to have a child.

"What most impressed me is that Corinna actually believes in herself and her willingness to try to understand what her body is telling her," said her husband. "She is determined in the face of what she is going through. She believes in what she is doing for herself. I am not the one who has to live in her body."

Parker said he has no idea why the holistic route his wife traveled seemed to work. "Most doctors are more tempted to laugh at it," he said.

Since his wife has had cancer, he said, "I am much more understanding of what a patient goes through and much more willing to listen to their thoughts. Doctors can easily forget."

Borden said she still has to fight demons in her head: "Every time I get a cold and feel a twinge in my side, I think 'Oh my gosh, what is happening?' But I have taught myself to recognize the voice of fear."

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