Breast Cancer Awareness: Chronic Disease and Eating Behaviors

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As Breast Cancer Awareness Month comes to an end, I find myself thankful that I work in an environment where health is encouraged physically, spiritually, emotionally, and mentally. My favorite population to work with are those who are in recovery from eating disorders. You may be wondering why I bring up the topic of eating disorders while discussing breast cancer awareness, but the truth is, they can be connected.

When you hear someone say the words “eating disorder”, do you tend to think of someone who has a specific look? Prior to starting in this field, I had a preconceived notion of how someone with an eating disorder would look. Little did I know that this was an assumption that those in the field of treating eating disorders fight so hard to overcome! As the saying goes, “when we know better, we do better.” So, let’s get back to discussing the potential connection between those who are fighting cancer and those who are in recovery from an eating disorder.

Those with eating disorders are often portrayed as someone who has a hyper-fixation on thinness. The truth is the disorder might be more accurately characterized by acknowledging it’s use as a coping skill. Yes, you read that right, a coping skill. In fact, when those who are in recovery experience times of high stress, they are more likely to engage in disordered behaviors. If we think of it this way, it is easier to connect the idea that someone with cancer could end up engaging in disordered behaviors around food due to the desire for control in what often can feel like an uncontrollable situation.

Some patients may experience weight gain through specialized steroid treatments. For some, this unexpected shift could be viewed as something else that feels out of control. In some cases, those who experience this shift in weight may seek out ways to decrease their weight and this can unintentionally turn into disordered behaviors, which may lower their already compromised immune system.

When someone is undergoing treatment for cancer and has limited intake, we may assume that their appetite is decreased due to the treatment itself. This is not a far-fetched assumption as treatment is known for suppressing the appetite. However, my hope is that after reading this blog, we will know that it is important to also consider behaviors around food prior to treatment. For example, those who are in treatment and struggle in their eating disorder recovery could easily “slip through the cracks” if we are not taking the time to dig deeper in our healthcare assessments.

Beyond medicinal cancer treatments, people also frequently seek out nutrition advice on how to improve quality of life or slow the progression of cancer. It is easy to see how someone may succumb to taking extreme measures to focus on or overhaul their food intake. Unfortunately, this also potentially opens the door for the behavior or fixation around food to escalate, leading to extreme behaviors and potential deficiencies that may result in a weaker body.

What can healthcare professionals do to take action? Ask questions! If a patient presents for support with cancer treatment, refrain from making assumptions about why they may be engaging in behaviors or experiencing symptoms such as low appetite, cutting out certain foods or entire food groups, isolating, and frequently weighing. Inquire about relationship with food, body image and social interactions prior to cancer diagnosis and at present. If a patient appears to need support with building a healthier relationship with food or even assistance with fueling for a strong body during treatment, refer them to a dietitian.

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