Body Image – The Scars We Hide Within

Let me start with a little background before I start this blog. This is not my story, but a story told to me by another breast cancer patient about her journey to recovery of an eating disorder after her breast cancer journey. I met, let’s call her Mary (not her real name), at the Avon 39 in Houston, Texas in (the last Avon 39 in Houston) 2017.

She was rail thin, and her sunken, dark rimmed eyes made her look like she hadn’t slept well in weeks. Mary closely resembled someone in the photos of a WWII concentration camp. She told me she was going through a recovery program for an eating disorder. An eating disorder she had driven herself to while trying to lose the weight she had gained during her cancer treatment.

Anorexia was a direct result of a combination of circumstances including: chemo therapy, radiation treatment, steroids, and the psychological impact the weight gain caused her. Cancer treatment changed the way her metabolism worked, dramatically impacting her weight. And the emotional impact of her husband’s words did not help matters any.

Being over 50 (she was 52) when she was diagnosed), her metabolism had started to slow down on its own due to hormonal changes. Chemo affected her thyroid, slowing down her metabolism even more. After her third treatment, she started receiving corticosteroids in her cocktail, to relieve her chemo induced nausea, causing more weight gain. Plus, since diagnosis, they had her taking hormone inhibitors, which in themselves cause weight gain. By treatment 6…full blown menopause.

She said she went through all sorts of body changes, losing both of her breast (she was stage 2 in the left breast and had two stage 1 tumors in the right breast), losing her beautiful long red curls and the weight gain (45 pounds total during the year after diagnosis).

The eating disorder was set into motion when Mary’s husband (let’s call him Bill) told her he wanted the woman back that he married. Not this rollie pollie woman standing in front of him. He left for work, she ate an entire bag of chips, then made herself throw up.

A year after she beat cancer, all she could think about was losing the weight, keeping it off and saving her marriage.

She lost 110 pound over the next year by either forcing herself to throw up or by taking laxatives every time she put food in her mouth. She weighed less than 90 pounds when Bill took her to the hospital because he was afraid she would die and he found out what was wrong with her . He cried. He knew it was his choice of words that sent her over the edge.

Most people don’t associate eating disorders with cancer patients. While loved ones are worried about your health, it won’t cross their minds that you are refusing food or forcing yourself to throw up to get your weight down. Why would anyone worry about weight loss to this extreme.

Your health, self-esteem, depression and anxiety are all wrapped into one sprawling feeling — you really need control over something after having no control for so long.

Body image is a concern of most women. It is important to understand that the effects of chemo may not be in your control, seeing yourself lovingly can be.

We gain weight due to many factors. It depends on medication side effects, roller coaster stress levels, your activity levels, and eating habits. Cancer is both a physical and mental battlefield.

Patients are nauseous causing a poor appetite. Vomiting and diarrhea lead to dehydration. Radiation and chemo both lead to mouth sores, change in smell and taste, which will decrease your appetite. All of these lead to fatigue and muscle loss.

Comfort foods, which tend to be full of carbs and fats and what we resort to get us through. And once treatment is over we gain because of a poor diet. One day someone either points out our weight gain or a glance in the mirror sets you into a tailspin. Even though it is unlikely women develop anorexia after the age of 20, body image, weight change and the need to be in control of something drives some cancer patients to an eating disorder.

According to 15 to 25% of all patients have a loss of appetite or desire to eat. But weight gain is a possible side effect due to corticosteroids in their treatment. Also, your weight gain can be attributed to the loss of activity due to fatigue and water retention.

You are at your heaviest point and have really had no control over what is happening with your body. Body image is a struggle that a lot of women don’t talk about. It is important to know, it is a disorder – an incredibly strong disorder that hooks its claws into your self-confidence, a disorder powerful enough to make women do everything can, depriving their body of necessary nutrients, all while their body is still healing from being ravaged by cancer and chemicals.

Anorexia is a relentless pursuit of thinness, a distorted body image and very restrictive eating patterns.

Individuals with binge eating and purging will eat large amounts of food or very little. Either way, after eating, they purge using activities including: vomiting, taking laxatives or diuretics or exercising excessively.

Eating disorders and the resulting weight loss compromises your health, often wearing your immune system and causing great discomfort and dehydration. It weakens your muscles, mind and bones due to malnutrition.

The road to recovery starts by admitting you have a problem. Admitting this is tough because you have to give up the belief that weight loss is the key to happiness, confidence and success.

Mary said that overcoming her eating disorder was about more than giving up unhealthy eating behaviors. It is about learning new ways to cope with the emotional pain and rediscovery of who she was, eating habits, weight and body image.

She told me that recovery involved:

– listening to your feelings

– listening to your body

– accepting yourself

– loving yourself for who you are

Mary also told me she was up 5 pounds from where she was when her husband took her to the hospital 8 weeks ago. And it was mental torture at times. Fear of gaining too much weight was always on her mind. She had to log everything she ate and drank. And exercise and protein shakes were now a part of her daily routine to help build her muscles. Mary told every woman she met during that two day walk. She didn’t want sympathy…she wanted us all to know how easy it is to fall into the dark abyss of an eating disorder.

You have to remember, you are not what you look like. If you are struggling with an eating disorder, open up to a loved one or seek help from your doctor. This should not be a taboo topic. Yet, most women are too scared or ashamed to bring it up.

I know this seems like a lot to tackle, but just remember that you are not alone. Help is out there and with the right support and guidance, you can break free from the eating disorder, regain your health and find joy in your life again.

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