The Untold Threat of an Eating Disorder to Cancer Recovery

A cancer diagnosis is horrifying whether you or people you love receive it, even with a promising prognosis. The disruption of cancer to one’s physical health causes middle-aged adults to seek solace in an eating disorder. Although it is uncommon for an eating disorder to occur for the first time among middle-aged women, the incidence rates are rising for older adults with cancer. 

The Link Between Cancer and Eating Disorders

The majority of middle-aged adults who develop eating disorders during cancer treatment have a history of eating disorders or body dysmorphia. The stress of cancer may extract the problem from the past and place it into the present.

Cancer patients hand over full control of their bodies to their doctors, often to conventional treatments like radiation and chemotherapy. Their bodies become a battlefield for modern medication and tumorous cells, and a series of doctor’s appointments, rounds of treatments, and doses of medicine engulf their lives.

The effect of losing control may be more severe in middle-aged cancer patients since they are also losing their grip on youthfulness in a society that overvalues it, or it could be that most women never outgrow negative body image.

In a 2012 study comprising almost 1,900 women aged 50 and older, 80 percent said their body shape and weight affected their self-perception. Over 35 percent of the women revealed spending at least half their time dieting within the last five years.

When their world feels its spinning out of control, cancer patients may regain control — or rather, the allusion of it — with an eating disorder. If they have no power over managing their disease, then perhaps they can regulate what goes in and out of their bodies through the food they eat.

“Food restriction is the one thing that you can do to have some sense of control when everything is chaotic,” said a woman in an interview with the New York Times on the topic of cancer and eating disorders.

Hiding an Eating Disorder is Easier When Going Through Treatment

It is sometimes easier to hide an eating disorder when a patient is going through cancer treatment. The side effects of chemotherapy, for instance, often include loss of appetite and nausea. Cancer patients can cloak food restrictions and purging with chemotherapy’s side effects. Who would ask any questions when everyone believes that cancer and its treatments are the culprits? 

As a matter of fact, most doctors suggest combating cancer with special diets as an adjunct or alternative treatment for the disease. Naturopathic or holistic cancer treatments, from going vegan to “juicing,” could trigger disordered eating patterns. Therefore, whether a cancer patient is undergoing conventional or alternative therapy, a caretaker must understand and become aware of eating disorder symptoms.

Once the weight starts coming off, past struggles with eating disorders or body dysmorphia may resurface. On the other hand, cancer treatments may also lead to eventual weight gain. When this happens, someone with a history of eating disorders may offset the gain by relapsing.

Chemotherapy in Middle-Aged Women Can Cause Weight Gain

Gaining weight during chemotherapy in middle-aged women is common, with most patients gaining between 5 to 8 pounds and some up to 25 pounds. A reason behind this phenomenon is that cancer treatment and the hormones used to compensate for the loss of estrogen can cause early menopause. Furthermore, corticosteroids used to alleviate chemo-induced nausea can lead to weight gain.

Whatever body changes cancer treatment causes — may it be weight gain or loss — the result can be unhealthy for some middle-aged patients who have battled eating disorders in their lifetime.

Dangers of Having an Eating Disorder While Fighting Cancer

The bodies of older individuals are less resilient and tolerant of the damage eating disorders can inflict. Senior women comprise 78 percent of all anorexia-related deaths, and 69 is the average age women die from the disease, according to statistics from Dr. Emmett Bishop, the medical director of adult services at the Eating Recovery Center.

While cancer is a terrifying disease, the truth is, most people survive it and go on to live full, happy lives. Unhealthy eating patterns and eating disorders only reduce the likelihood of cancer remission. Your body needs your help to win the battle with cancer. If you choose to work with your body rather than against it — talk about your feelings instead of acting on them — recovery becomes a greater possibility.

Real-Life Battles with Cancer and Eating Disorders

One anonymous person wrote to Dr. Bishop, “I have beat cancer but all I care about is losing that weight and keeping it off.” Another person named Doreen, felt like something she had been hiding for years is now out in the open. She wrote, “You are sharing my little secret that I’ve carried around for years. I, too, used my cancer treatment as an excuse to practice my eating disorder. No one questioned why I wasn’t eating, why I was throwing up, why I was experiencing rapid weight loss.”

According to a published article in Psychological Aspects of Anorexia in Cancer Patients, such experiences are common. “It’s a real thing, an anomaly,” Dr. Bishop shared. 

Treatment Options for Middle-Aged Women with Eating Disorders

With the increasing recognition of eating disorders in middle-aged adults, more and more treatments are becoming available and can be tailored to meet the unique needs of this age group.

If you or someone you love is struggling with an eating disorder, know that it is never too late to seek the appropriate help needed. Begin the journey to recovery at an eating disorder treatment center near you.

Choose New Hope Unlimited as Your Ally Against Cancer

New Hope Unlimited is among the most active providers of alternative treatments to cancer. Our mission is to improve each patient’s quality of life and penetrate the root of malignant diseases with minimal short- and long-term side effects. Our personalized treatment plan not only addresses cancer, but also strengthens the body’s natural defense systems and treats malnutrition — a leading cause of cancer-related deaths. To schedule a consultation, contact our office today by dialing 480-757-6573. 


    • Eating Disorder Hope
    • Gagne, D., Von Holle, A., Brownley, K., Runfola, C., Hofmeier, S., Branch, K. & Bulik, C., (2012). Eating disorder symptoms and weight and shape concerns in a large web-based convenience sample of women ages 50 and above: Results of the gender and body image (GABI) study. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 45: 832–844
    • Middle-Aged Women and Eating Disorders – The Breast Care Site. (2013, February 14). Retrieved December 15, 2015.
    • Kercher, S. (2015, July 27). When Cancer Triggers (or Hides) an Eating Disorder. New York Times.



Click here for our blog Disclaimer.