After retiring several years ago, Deb Borst found she had plenty of time to enjoy nature, one of her favorite pastimes.
She enjoyed gardening with friends and walking around Reeds Lake, in East Grand Rapids. She was always on the lookout for beautiful birds.
On many days, she’d log anywhere from 8,000 to 10,000 steps.
She’s also been very active in her church. She spent over 20 years in leadership at The Other Way Ministries. And after retirement, she became a spiritual director, meeting with people who want to live more contemplative lives.
Borst is a widow and mom to two wonderful adult kids. She has one grandson and an adopted Liberian family.
“They call me honey,” she said. “So that’s my nickname.”
No matter how busy she got, she always made time for hiking, walking in the woods and visits to the farmer’s market.
Leading a healthy, active life is important to her.
“I’m a summer girl,” she said.
An unexpected diagnosis
In spring 2021, her journey took an abrupt turn when she went to the emergency department for what she believed to be kidney stones.
At Spectrum Health Zeeland Community Hospital, scans suggested something additional might be going on.
Most CT scans for kidney stones don’t include a look at the lungs, but this one just so happened to include part of the lower lobe of her left lung. And that’s where an astute radiologist recommended Borst undergo an additional scan, just to be safe.
“For me, this is my God story,” she said. “Because I see so many pieces that came together in ways that are just beyond my imagining.”
Borst said she vividly remembers the phone call from her doctor, after the second scan revealed a suspicious area on her lung.
“That was certainly a scary conversation to have,” she said. “But I also have absolute confidence in my doctor and knew that he would refer me to a good team. And indeed, he did.”
Within a week she had an appointment at Spectrum Health, first with a pulmonologist who read the CT scan and told her about other tests to expect.
“It put my mind at ease right away to know what was next,” she said.
The care team then scheduled her for a robot-assisted bronchoscopy with Gustavo Cumbo-Nacheli, MD, pulmonologist and critical care physician at Spectrum Health.
The procedure identified a small spot on the lower left lobe of her lung.
Doctors identified the nodule, about the size of a grape, as a carcinoid tumor, a slow-growing type of cancer.
“So to me, that was the good news,” Borst said.
But it would need to be removed.
After several more tests to rule out any spread of the cancer, Borst soon met with Geoffrey Lam, MD, cardiothoracic surgeon at Spectrum Health. Dr. Lam developed a plan for robot-assisted surgery to remove the tumor.
“Deb was a healthy woman, nonsmoker, with no risk factors for cancer,” Dr. Lam said. “We saw something at the base of one of her lungs and a biopsy found an early-stage cancer.”
Robot-assisted surgery could help her get back to normal much sooner than traditional surgery, Dr. Lam said.
“I really wanted to try and avoid a big incision or big operation, because she didn’t have a lot of risk factors for cancer,” he said.
The care team scheduled Borst for a robot-assisted lobectomy in Dr. Lam’s office.
“He did such a wonderful job of creating three-dimensional images for us,” Borst said. “And that’s when I found out that my tumor was the size of a grape. Suddenly it became kind of real and something that we could picture.”
The surgery was completed in under two hours.
Afterward, Dr. Lam visited Borst in recovery. He said she had excellent, healthy lungs—and her good physical health would aid in her overall recovery.
But the assist from robotics also played a role.
In cases such as Borst’s, traditional open surgery involving spreading of the ribs could have resulted in five to seven days in the hospital and another two to three months of recovery.
With robot-assisted surgery, she spent just three days in the hospital.
“I had surgery on a Monday and by Thursday was home,” Borst said.
Doctors recommended she not push herself too hard too soon, although she could resume some normal physical activities.
Within three weeks, she was back to walking and enjoying much of her normal routine.
“I can’t begin to tell you what a wonderful surgeon and man he is,” Borst said of Dr. Lam. “He was so kind and compassionate with me, with our family. And at the same time, he just had this humble confidence about him.”
A quick recovery
It didn’t take long for Borst to get back into a rhythm.
“I started watering my flowers as soon as I got home and my daughter said, ‘Mom, you need to back off a little bit. Not quite so fast,’” she said. “But I was able to resume my normal activities very quickly.”
Doctors found the majority of Borst’s tumor was a mycobacteria infection, and only a tiny piece was carcinoid cancer.
“I feel like a living miracle,” Borst said. “And I am grateful beyond words for the work of every person on the medical team. From those who first read my CT scan to those who cared for me on my last day in the hospital. It was quite the journey.”
Less than a month after returning home, Borst found she could tackle one of her favorite hiking trails: Rosey Mound, in Grand Haven, Michigan. It features impressive climbing dunes and a variety of inclines.
Now, one year post-surgery, Borst and her doctors agree: Her recovery has been quite amazing.
“I had very little pain throughout my recovery,” Borst said. “And if I had pain, it was very manageable.”
She said she remains deeply grateful to God for the outcome—and for her providers “being so personal with me, respecting me, trusting me and being willing to answer questions.”
She recently celebrated her 73rd birthday.
“I hope I’m good to go for a long time, because I have many things that I would still love to do,” she said. “I want my life to be a testimony and continue to just be so grateful.”