Food Anxiety: How Cancer Changed the Way I Eat


Since being diagnosed with cancer, I can't walk into a grocery story without hearing B.B. King sing "The Thrill is Gone." My relationship with food changed, and I often wonder if we'll ever be able to fall in love again.

An article in CURE came up in my Twitter feed before Christmas and I clicked on it immediately. The timing couldn't have been more perfect as I was sandwiched between two food-centric holidays where someone would always comment on my plate that wasn't piled high with traditional food, or notice that I turned down any offer for seconds. In this article I saw words like "food anxiety," and read other patients describe food as a "chore" and their lack of desire to eat. Every word resonated with me and I kept ending each paragraph with, "That's me!" Through this article, I found this little corner of cancer that I had never heard talked about, and every word validated this weird post-diagnosis perception I'd developed toward food that I believed was singular to just me.

Not a day has gone by since I was diagnosed that I haven't climbed on the scale for the opposite reason I climbed on it before cancer. Eight years prior, I watched as it ticked down to numbers I hadn't seen since middle school despite a steady diet of French fries and milkshakes. My cancer diagnosis finally explained that unexplained weight loss, and my relationship with that number on the scale was forever changed when I discovered it was a tumor sucking the calories out of everything I consumed. For me, the number on the scale became a measure for my level of sickness, and a subsequent meter for my level of cancer-related anxiety.

Cancer hasn't just made me hyper aware of my weight, it's also dulled my interest in food. The two obviously go hand-in-hand. Nothing will chronically ruin your appetite like continual nausea, a metallic taste in your mouth and mouth sores. Nothing will also annoy me faster than someone giving me advice on how to gain weight. If the desire isn't there, it isn't going to happen, so please refrain from telling another adult how to eat.

As well intended as people are, the comments still stick and pour a tiny bit of salt in wounds we're hoping no one will notice. A few weeks ago, a seatmate on a flight made a comment about my weight and asked my secret to being so thin. I wanted to respond to her with a solemn, "Cancer!" to drive home the inappropriateness of her question. Instead I buffered it with some hypothetical paper tape and gauze as I kindly explained to her that chemo and calorie intake was the reason I fit so compactly in my window seat.

When dating, I would immediately swipe left on anyone who described themselves as a "foodie who likes to try new restaurants in town." No matter how many boxes they checked, I knew we'd never be a match because I was the Debbie Downer of food, and they probably watched cooking shows and shopped at Williams-Sonoma on the weekends.

Before you run off thinking I don't eat, I do! It has just become a means to an end and nothing worth photographing for Instagram or writing up on Yelp. It's a matter of function over fun — eat now so I'm not hungry later. I often wonder if my relationship with food will revert back to what it was if this chemo mess ever ends, and some days I convince myself I've developed some unique eating disorder where food has lost its appeal. Maybe food and I need to go away on a couple's retreat to reconnect and work on our relationship?

The CURE article wasn't offering any solutions to my food issues, as I believe most patients would agree there aren't any in the midst of treatment. What it did do was let me know that what I was experiencing was real, and I wasn't the only one out there humming "The Thrill is Gone" every time I picked up a menu at a restaurant. As patients and survivors, we don't always need a fix to our problems, we just need validation and to know we're not the only ones out there facing them. For me it's nice to know I'm not the only one out there who was made indifferent to food thanks to cancer.

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