Recovering from an eating disorder during cancer treatment is often a slow process that could involve relapses. For some people, recovery means being completely healthy in mind and body. For others, recovery is about learning to control behaviors and thoughts associated with an eating disorder in a way that didn’t limit their lives.
National Eating Disorders Awareness Week
For National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, we explore the link between the most common types of eating disorders associated with cancer recovery. These disorders become a way of managing and controlling a part of a person’s life that feels out of control.
While people don’t have control over many aspects of their life, choosing what goes in and out of their bodies is a way of coping. It is unhealthy, but it’s a way of getting a sense of that loss of control nonetheless. It is usually a subconscious choice to use food as a way of control, which is why going to therapy and asking for support is crucial in overcoming and treating problems with eating.
Concerning eating behaviors are prevalent not just in our culture but most especially among patients battling bouts of cancer. Dealing with stress and issues with body image may trigger some of these. The good news is that it is possible to make lasting changes with the help of professionals. Your team of licensed professionals should understand the importance of diving deeper and improving your way of life.
The Link Between Cancer and Eating Disorders
From emotional, physical, and psychological health, cancer can affect every aspect of a person’s life. Oftentimes, people living with cancer experience changes in weight and loss of appetite because of the cancer itself and its treatment. More than 50 percent of patients go through changes with eating patterns during their cancer journey, according to the Journal of Nursing and Midwifery Research.
One of the most common among them is anorexia. This condition may have a lasting negative effect on the body and trigger some complications during cancer recovery. Anorexia can easily lead to malnutrition, and as a result, the patient loses lean body mass. This, in turn, will make for poorer response to treatment, increased side effects, and a less ideal outcome.
How Often Does Cancer Cause An Eating Disorder?
It is still unknown how often cancer causes or cloaks an eating disorder. Studies suggest that cancer patients hand over control of their bodies to their doctors, to chemotherapy and radiation. Their bodies become a battle between tumorous cells and modern medicine. Their lives become a series of doses of medicine, therapies, and doctor’s appointments.
Loss of control is seen often in middle-aged cancer patients perhaps because they’re also losing the grip on youthfulness in society that overvalues it. Another reason may be because many women never outgrow negative body image.
In a study of around 1,900 women aged 50 and above, 80 percent said their body shape and weight affected their self-esteem. Over 35 percent said they had spent a significant portion of their time trying to lose weight in the last five years. Under the chaos of fighting cancer, patients can regain command or rather, the allusion of it, with an eating disorder. Mainly the driving force for this phenomenon is that when they can’t manage the cancer, they can at least control the food they eat.
Hiding An Eating Disorder When Going Through Chemotherapy
It’s easier to hide an eating disorder when a patient is going through treatment because certain therapies are known to cause nausea and loss of appetite. They can cloak purging and restriction with cancer’s side effects.
In fact, it is common for patients to fight cancer with special diets, as a substitute or an adjunct treatment for the illness. Naturopathic holistic diets, from juicing to veganism, could possibly look like disordered eating.
Losing weight can trigger past struggles with eating disorders. Meanwhile, cancer therapies may eventually result in weight gain. Patients may take this opportunity to use disordered eating to offset the gain.
Working Towards Recovery
Nearly eight million Americans are diagnosed with an eating disorder. These cases are mostly treatable, and anyone can relearn healthy eating habits and ways to cope. Overcoming an eating disorder while getting treated for cancer may take months, and in some cases, years. But with the help of your healthcare team, you can successfully focus on both your cancer therapy and eating disorder recovery, so you can return to the best health possible.
- Nutritional Counseling – You will likely have an oncology dietician in your cancer care team. He or she is trained to help people with cancer to achieve a healthier weight and combat the side effects of treatment through proper nutrition. Your dietician will assess your condition and unique needs before providing any advice. Among other possible solutions, you may have to eat more in the morning than in the evening or eat several small meals throughout the day.
- Appetite Stimulants – When nutrition counseling is not enough to suppress unhealthy eating behaviors, medication can further assist. An appetite stimulant may pique the interest of a patient with anorexia for certain foods, even if the cancer treatment causes side effects like nausea.
- Medical Nutrition Therapy – For extreme cases where the patient is already suffering from malnourishment, medical nutrition therapy using parenteral or enteral nutrition is necessary. Your doctor may prescribe liquid dietary supplements to help your body get the nutrition that it needs. The doctor may also advise for certain interventions, like a feeding tube, if the patient is in danger of malnourishment.
There are many challenges to overcome when fighting cancer and an eating disorder at the same time. They can take their toll on your mental health, but it’s important to remember that you have a medical team that is always willing to help and get you through this tough situation. With their aid, you can achieve your health goals while keeping your overall well-being. If you are struggling with an eating problem, do not hesitate to discuss it with your doctor. This conversation is your first step to recovery.