Eating Disorders and Cancer

There is much controversy around the topic of eating disorders and cancer. In some cases, severe eating disorders like anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa can trigger abnormal cell growth and set up the body for cancerous cells to grow. In another sort of circumstance, many cancer patients who are pushing through treatment and life after treatment find themselves diagnosed with these very same eating disorders- not from the cancer, but because the patient has experienced so much heavy stress that they no longer cope in the same ways that they did before.

Eating disorders are characterized by the unusual changes and eating behaviors exhibited by a human. In most cases, these disorders occur because the patient has lost their logical perception of their body weight and body shape. Anorexia nervosa is defined by the refusal or inability to maintain minimally normal body weight, failure to gain weight during expected growth periods, or unusual tactics to avoid food. Bulimia nervosa involves binge eating over and over with behaviors like purging after eating, fasting for long periods of time, or excessively exercising. Anorexia can occur at any time in life, while bulimia usually presents later in life. The gender most often touched by eating disorders are female with over ninety-percent of cases being diagnosed in women.

Some patients fall into both categories and neither specific eating disorder defines their life. For some cancer patients, food does not cooperate inside of the body as it once did, maybe due to chemotherapy or other medications being taken. The fear of being sick, being nauseous, or vomiting is enough for some people to avoid eating altogether. This type of mixed-variety of eating disorder in a cancer patient or terminally ill patient can be either male or female.

It is extremely important that you seek help for any family member or friend that may be struggling with an eating disorder.

What are the signs and symptoms to watch for if I think my family member is struggling with anorexia and bulimia nervosa?

Any individual with an eating disorder will not have all of the signs or symptoms visible at once. In most cases, these people are trying their hardest to hide their issues from others and deal with it themselves. If you notice these things within yourself or your friend, consider sitting down to calmly address your concerns and offer your support for whatever step should happen next. Here are the things to watch for with an eating disorder:

  • Dramatic weight loss.
  • Dresses in layers to hide weight loss or stay warm.
  • Is preoccupied with weight, food, calories, fat grams, and dieting.
  • Refuses to eat certain foods, progressing to restrictions against whole categories of food.
  • Makes frequent comments about feeling “fat” or overweight despite weight loss.
  • Denies feeling hungry.
  • Develops food rituals.
  • Frequently visits the restroom after eating.
  • Consistently makes excuses to avoid mealtimes or situations involving food.
  • Maintains an excessive, rigid exercise regimen – despite weather, fatigue, illness, or injury.
  • Withdraws from usual friends and activities and becomes more isolated, withdrawn, and secretive.
  • Has an intense fear of weight gain or being “too fat” even though underweight.
  • Has disturbed experience of body weight or shape, undue influence of weight or shape on self-evaluation, or denial of the seriousness of low body weight.
  • Post-puberty female loses menstrual period.
  • Shows inflexible thinking.

I have read that females with eating disorders can have fertility trouble. Is this true?

Yes, this is true. Eating disorders get worse and the damage becomes harder to heal the longer that they present. There are many adverse body reactions to these eating disorders that can cause problems with other parts of the body than just weight and size. Long-lasting effects of eating disorders in females can be low body mass index numbers, abnormal or missing menstrual function, delayed childbearing years, infertility, and life-threatening pregnancy complications. Many of these factors alone raise the risk of a multitude of female-centered cancers.

With these studies, many of the women who had an eating disorder and could not conceive were never able to. The damage done to the body is irreversible and very hard to correct.

What are the causes and risk factors that increase my risk of developing an eating disorder?

While doctors do not know the exact causes as to why someone begins to live with an eating disorder, many attribute it to emotional or physical stress, major life changes, certain forms of mental illness, societal expectations, and genetics. Certain factors that can increase your risk of becoming anorexic or bulimic are:

Dieting. People who diet are at higher risk of developing eating disorders. Many people with bulimia severely restrict calories between binge episodes, which may trigger an urge to again binge eat and then purge. Other triggers for bingeing can include stress, poor body self-image, food, and boredom.

Biology. People with first-degree relatives like siblings, parents or children with an eating disorder may be more likely to develop an eating disorder, suggesting a possible genetic link. Being overweight as a child or teen may increase the risk.

Psychological and emotional issues. Psychological and emotional problems, such as depression, anxiety disorders or substance use disorders are closely linked with eating disorders. People with eating disorders may feel negatively about themselves. In some cases, traumatic events and environmental stress may be contributing factors.

Why is my family member who has cancer now choosing not to eat?

It may seem like they are “choosing” this behavior, but it may not be a conscious decision. Many times, when the cancer-stricken or chronically ill are worn out and exhausted, they will attempt to control the things that they still can. This behavior has been compared to childlike behavior but serve the same purpose. Cancer takes everything away from someone that they are used to, leaving them with scraps of themselves. Eating and weight are both things that can be controlled by the doer, and others cannot really force or have a hand in. They cannot, for example, control the side effects from their medications they need to live, or all of the counterparts that arise with cancer.

Remember to be gentle, make no accusations, and just be a stable support system for your person who is going through so much at this time in their life. There may be reasons that you are unaware of as to why something like this could be happening. This is why it is always best to have a calm discussion before jumping to any conclusions about your loved one.

Is there anything I can do to prevent my family member from dealing with an eating disorder on top of their cancer diagnosis?

There is no true way to one-hundred-percent prevent an eating disorder in another person. However, there are things that you can do to alleviate some of the stressors and help your person through the rough spots. Here are some things you could do:

  • Discourage dieting, especially when it involves unhealthy weight-control behaviors, such as fasting, using weight-loss supplements or laxatives, or self-induced vomiting.
  • Talk with your primary care provider. He or she may be in a good position to identify early indicators of an eating disorder and help prevent its development.
  • If you notice a relative or friend who seems to have food issues that could lead to or indicate an eating disorder, consider supportively talking to the person about these issues and ask how you can help.
  • Foster and reinforce a healthy body image in your children, no matter what their size or shape. Help them build confidence in ways other than their appearance.
  • Have regular, enjoyable family meals.
  • Avoid talking about weight at home. Focus instead on having a healthy lifestyle.

If you suspect that you or your loved one may be struggling with an eating disorder, reach out to someone who can help get you all back on track. Seeking treatment is not a sign of weakness, but instead a sign of strength in reclaiming your life in every aspect that exists.

Resources Used:


Cancer Therapy Advisor. Net

National Eating Disorders .org


Reclaiming Intimacy

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