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Struggling With Eating After Cancer

HealHeal Winter 2021

How surviving cancer reignited my latent eating disorder, and how I handle and look at that struggle now.

I've always had a complicated relationship with food, from growing up a chubby child whose well-meaning parents restricted my intake to becoming a teenager with a binge-purge habit that extended throughout my 20's. My cancer journey began because of the years of yo-yo dieting, binge eating and self-loathing led me to a bariatric surgeon, who was willing to perform weight loss surgery even though I didn't weigh enough. I was told to overeat to get my weight up to qualify for the surgery, and during pre-op testing, we discovered metastases throughout my liver and spleen.

My food issues didn't magically disappear after treatment, especially since I put myself on a severely restrictive diet during chemo. I fasted on treatment days, cut out all sugar, caffeine, and carbohydrates and I continued to gain and lose the same 5-10 pounds in a year. Yet for the first time in my life, I felt extraordinarily lucky to have excess body weight.

On the cancer ward, I looked healthy and robust in comparison to so many of my fellow patients with cancer. One of my new cancer friends I met told me that she remembered when she used to look like me. I was so confused by her statement, she was perpetually pale, waifishly thin and while we had similar coloring and features, we looked nothing alike. It wasn't until I saw the photo they used in her death announcement, that I realized what she meant about our resemblance. She had been much larger, stronger and radiant before cancer ate away her flesh. I overate my feelings the day I found out she had died, as if the excess weight on my body would stave away cancer.

Two years past treatment, and I still have nightmares about being on the cancer ward.

I think back to the treatment day when a flimsy film of curtain separated my bed from an elderly cancer patient. With the “Red Devil” dripping through my veins, I dozed in and out of my Benadryl induced slumber, to hear a young woman tearfully implore her elderly mother to eat during treatment or they would have to put in a feeding tube. I later told my husband that a feeding tube would be my red line, the deciding factor between continuing or ending my fight.

I've developed an obsession with living a healthy lifestyle. Back in May, I wrote how I believed that if I could just lose weight, I will be able to keep cancer from coming back. Yet as soon as the weight started to come off, and my face started to look thinner, it would trigger me back to the cancer ward and I would overeat to regain any of the weight I had lost. The paradox between my desire to lose weight and live a healthy lifestyle, with my fear of weight loss, has been a constant struggle.

I look at my excess body weight not as unhealthy fat that's unattractive, but as time. The rolls of my stomach represent months while the skin hanging beneath my arms represents days. My excess body weight, in my mind, means more time in this world with the people I love.

If cancer should ever decide to come back again, it would take longer for the disease to starve me into non-existence.

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