As I Disappear: My Battle With Anorexia During Cancer Treatment
Trigger Warning: This article contains writing that may be triggering to those who have experienced eating disorders.
"She's so thin," I say to myself as the familiar sense of envy creeps in. I notice her jeans billowing around her legs and am filled with self loathing. In the past year, I have gained 25lbs and hate the sight of myself in a mirror. These thoughts would be somewhat normal for any woman to think, I guess. Most women I know have issues with their body. Except I know it is beyond fucked up for me. See, I’m sitting in Sloan Kettering Cancer Hospital for my two month check up, and that woman I’m staring at, well, she’s undergoing chemotherapy; just like I’ve been for the past three years.
Somewhere in my mind I know these thoughts are wrong, but these thoughts are completely normal to me. I just know they would be perceived as wrong by others, so I say nothing. When I was first diagnosed with Stage IV cancer in 2011 and the doctors were running a battery of tests on me, I saw on my chart that I fell within the normal weight range for my height- I always have. But in my mind, I’ve always been fat. "Well", I said to my sister as I was about to begin chemo, "I’ll finally lose those stubborn ten pounds I’ve been struggling with for years". "That’s looking at the bright side," she replied. Clearly we not only share genes but also a morose sense of humor.
As the months passed, my weight slowly began to drop. I would hear other patients complain how they couldn’t keep weight on and, like in the movie ‘When Harry Met Sally’ I half jokingly think, "I'll have what she’s having" But, there is nothing funny about this, I know. I was fighting for my life and yet…I secretly loved to feel my bones protruding.
When I was prepping for a surgery where a pump the size of a hockey puck would be placed under my skin to deliver chemotherapy directly to my liver, I asked the doctor if it would be very noticeable. He said because I was so thin it would definitely show but wouldn't be too bad. After he left the room I turned to my husband and said, "Did you hear that? He said I was thin." My husband just stared at me as I gave him a half smile.
I embraced this thinness, even as I was losing my hair, even as I was throwing up and paralyzed by the chemo induced neuropathy. Two years in, my medication was switched up. This new pill regime didn’t make me sick, didn't cause me to lose my appetite. Slowly, my weight crept back up. My breasts became full again, my stomach a little more rounded. "Fuck", I thought, "I can't get fat again."
My size 2 jeans became a size 6. The weight came back at a steady pace. I began my food deprivation technique again. 2lbs gone...5lbs gone...8lbs gone. Yes. It's working. I'm back in control. Except, I'm not in control at all. And this time, people are taking notice. At dinner my husband asked me why I wasn't having bread, or meat, or much of anything really. "You're spiraling again," he said. I went home and dropped to my knees on my bathroom floor in a fit of tears. How can I continue to hate this body? The body that successfully fought off cancer. The body that brought my wonderful son into this world. The body that has been caressed and made love to. How is it that I am still here in this place of self loathing?
I have dug deeply over the past three years. I’ve gone on spiritual journeys, meditated with shaman, prayed to saints. I’ve done the work to deal with the cancer, but not with the real issue, which is why do I continue to hate myself? How is it that someone who fought so hard to live, still just exists in a body that she despises? What was this all for if the internal struggle continues to be unbearable? I am living while so many of my friends have died from this disease. I am cancer free while so many still fight. And yet...my mind still whispers toxic thoughts. "Be small," it says. Small is safe. Small means I’m in control. And after three years of having limited control over my body , it's nice to be in the driver’s seat; even if I don't know where I’m headed.
If you or a loved one is struggling with getting help, click here for the National Eating Disorders Association confidential helpline.
Have you ever battled an eating disorder while also battling cancer? Share in the comments below.