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Cancer Victim Hunts for Cure at 28
PHOTO: Gloria Borges and Dr. Heinz Josef-Lenz are working together to raise $250 million to cure colon cancer.

Her age fooled doctors big-time.

Gloria Borges, 28, seemed too young to have colon cancer. From January to July, the hard-working attorney and had been plagued by bloating and extreme diarrhea. Her general practitioner told her to take probiotics and herbal supplements.

But by September she couldn't ignore the debilitating symptoms.

She checked herself into a hospital in downtown Los Angeles, where it took doctors five days to realize she needed emergency surgery for stage-four colon cancer.

"Like anybody else who's 28 and experiencing [gastrointestinal] issues, I just wrote it off as other issues," said Borges, who at the time was told she would live just another year or two.

Now she's 31 and harnessing her youth, in an unusual partnership with a top cancer researcher. The goal is to steer an ambitious $250 million fundraising initiative to cure colon cancer, a disease that is often hard to raise funds for because of an "ick" factor.

Colon cancer is on the rise among young people, with more than 10 per 100,000 adults between the ages of 20 to 49 afflicted with the disease in 2007, up from more than 8 per 100,000 in 1992, according to the American Cancer Society.

People younger than 30 make up 2 to 3 percent of all colon-cancer patients, said Borges, who has blogged about colon cancer for three years and runs The WunderGlo Foundation, a public-education group that raises funds for colon-cancer research.

Yet the diagnosis is difficult for younger adults because colon-cancer screenings are only recommended for people older than 50, said Jasmine Greenamyer, chief operating officer for the nonprofit group Colon Cancer Alliance.

"If [the diagnosis is] under 50 ... it's often misdiagnosed as anemia, hemorrhoids or, 'You just had a baby,'" she said. "The only population increasing in incidence is under 50. It's a big call to action."

The American Cancer Society says the reasons for the uptick in younger adults' being diagnosed with colon cancer are "unknown" but might reflect the nation's obesity epidemic, which has ballooned in recent decades.

Younger diagnoses are changing the picture of the colon-cancer patient. A photo of Borges on her anti-cancer initiative, The Wunder Project (part of her foundation), shows her wearing a T-shirt that says, "My oncologist is my homeboy."

She produced a viral "Harlem Shake" video in his cancer center that grabbed almost a million hits.

Since her diagnosis and treatment, Borges, who is married and lives in the Hollywood Hills of Los Angeles, has traded antitrust litigating for fighting for cancer research. Her idea of a great party is one that takes place in an intensive-care unit.

Music blasts from her hospital room after surgeries as streams of friends and family members come in to laugh and enjoy themselves, Borges said.

Borges' diet has also changed.

"I was a steak-and-cheese-platter and Johnny-Walker-Black-drinking attorney," Borges said.

She's now a vegan who practices meditation.

Colon cancer in all but 5 to 10 percent of cases (in which genes can predispose a person to getting the disease) is caused by lifestyle and diet, making it the most preventable of all cancers, said Dr. Heinz-Josef Lenz, scientific director of the Cancer Genetics Unit at the University of Southern California's Norris Cancer Center.

Younger colon cancer sufferers like Borges are more likely to survive longer because they have a stronger will to live, said Lenz, who is also Borges' doctor and the co-director of USC's Colorectal Center.

"People have a lot to fight for," Lenz said. "They're willing to be much more aggressive."

In 2011 Borges underwent an 11-hour, 17-procedure treatment nicknamed by patients as "The Mother of All Surgeries." She lost her ovaries, gall bladder, spleen, appendix and more. She has now gone through 45 rounds of chemotherapy.

It's a medical intervention that few colon cancer patients attempt, Lenz said. It was successful and, for now, her cancer has abated, he said. Meanwhile, a fire has lit inside her to try to do something that is even used as a cliché for something impossible: cure cancer.

The Wunder Project seeks to raise $250 million to cure cancer in nine years.

Borges came up with the figure and timeframe through closely working with Lenz, a top researcher in the colon-cancer field who happened to be located in the same city.

"He told me, 'I'm not here to hold hands with patients and talk them through as they die. I'm here to cure,'" she said. "I knew he had those intangibles I wanted in a teammate."

Then came her question: "I said, 'If you had all the money in the world, could you cure [colon cancer]?' Without hesitation he said, 'Yes.'"

Lenz said he thinks his methodology for a cure can be used as a blueprint to help cure other cancers, too.

"We believe this is the first domino that will lead to the end of cancer," Borges said.

The pair -- both aggressive workers, independent thinkers with a sense of humor -- became best friends. They email each other often a dozen times during the day. They trade developments on colon cancer and Borges goads Lenz to go vegan, she said.

They spend weekends together, colluding to end colon cancer.

It's an unusual relationship that has invigorated several major colon cancer researchers around the world to quicken the pace of research, Lenz said.

"This is absolutely novel," said Lenz, a Germany native who has researched colon cancer for two decades. "I cannot [fundraise like this] with my development office. They wouldn't have the drive or perspective of a patient. This is the first time a [patient] is fully in the middle of development."

Lenz said he doesn't see any ethics issues in treating Borges and collaborating with her at the same time.

"At the beginning, I thought this will be weird, but it hasn't been at all," he said. "The only worry I have is that it's too much for her … if this jeopardizes her health, I will say, 'You cannot continue,'" he said.

"I'm always holding my breath, 'How long this will work'?" he said of Borges' treatment.

Borges' youth and personality are part of her drive, he said.

"I was always an out-of-box thinker, I was always pushing the envelope, I don't accept a no," Lenz said. "She has a similar personality. I think we've found each other on that level. We're fighting passionately on something we believe in. I think we found each other in some mysterious ways."

The patient-doctor fundraising project is unusual in other ways. Colon-cancer research is underfunded compared with breast, prostate and other cancers even though it's the third-most common cancer when men and women are combined, Greenamyer of the Colon Cancer Alliance said.

"The disparity in funding is huge," she said. "There's still the squirm factor."

Borges said she has set a casual tone with colleagues, friends and others when it comes time to talk shop about colon cancer.

"You'd be surprised how willing people are to talk about their poop," she said. "I have to hear about people's GI [gastrointestinal] function all the time. A colleague will take me aside and I think they want to talk about a case but they want to talk about their poop."

Borges and Lenz were initially prompted into action after the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston announced its "Moon Shots Program," a plan that started last month to raise $3 billion to cure six cancers: breast, ovarian, leukemia (3 kinds), melanoma, lung and prostate.

The list didn't include colon cancer.

So far The Wunder Project has raised more than $150,000, enough to pay for Borges' annual overhead, she said.

Borges, who appeared on "The Today Show" last week to talk about colon-cancer awareness and her new project, said she has never been more content.

"I think I'm having more fun now. My perspective on life is so different, the way I truly enjoy life, and my relationships," she said. "I just went cage-diving with sharks."

Among the young people with colon cancer who she has helped are four random acquaintances from college and prior years who noticed her blog. They told her about strange gastrointestinal issues they were having and she helped them demand colonoscopies. All four were diagnosed with colon cancer.

They told her she saved their lives, Borges said.

If she could go back in time and not get colon cancer, but also not experience everything she has in the past three years, she wouldn't.

"I'd take the disease every single time," Borges said.

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