Editor's note: The following article describes the author’s experiences with an eating disorder, which may be upsetting for some readers. If you or a loved one is in need of support, consider reaching out to the National Eating Disorders Association or the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.
I read somewhere that it was National Eating Disorder Week and my first cognitive thought was, isn’t every week? Let’s face it…we all have a complicated relationship with our bodies. Our self-worth is entwined with our appearance in some of the most unhealthy ways. While this is especially true of women, men also face body positivity issues and sometimes have an even harder time talking about it. It seems that no matter what we do, we can never win on this topic. Too heavy, too thin, hair too short or too long, clothes too masculine or feminine…all of these too, too, too’s. The look we want is never the look we are born with, nor in most cases is it feasible. The best we can do is make peace with who we are both physically and mentally. I can strive to be the best ME, but that may not be good enough for many. And what is good enough when dealing with self-image and a cancer diagnosis? When you are undergoing cancer treatment, you often don’t even have a choice in how your body reacts.
For as long as I can remember, I have struggled with my weight. I can still remember a (very) mean kid referring to me in hyper-critical terms related to my weight as young as ten years old (and yes, I’m still holding a grudge). As an impressionable child, that stays with you and shapes how you see yourself for the rest of your life. By the time I entered high school, I had a textbook eating disorder, eating minimally and exercising fanatically. I remember starving myself for days at a time. Even into my twenties, I would test myself to see how long I could go without eating. At that time I also replaced food with alcohol, trading one bad habit for another. When I see photos of myself from that time period, I cannot believe I was ever so thin even while remembering how overweight I thought I was. Food was my reward and my punishment; I doled it out with equal measure.
It is a complicated pressure we put upon ourselves. We strive to maintain this ideal, whatever that happens to be at the moment. When I was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer at age 31, my first thought was "yes, maybe I’ll lose some weight". I remember making this insane statement to my oncologist at the time who replied that typically, the opposite was true. Because breast cancer tends to be hormonal, most people undergoing treatment tend to put weight on. At that age, with so much of my self-worth caught up in my pant size, this was almost as devastating as losing my breasts, my hair. As soon as treatment ended, I joined Weight Watchers, happy to be able to resume some level of control in my life. For me, that is really what an eating disorder is – a way to maintain some illusion of control about something, not acknowledging that age, hormones, genetics, and myriad other things contribute to this element.
Newly diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer
At age 36 and newly diagnosed with mets to my bones, I knew the weight cycle was about to change up again. And do you know what I did about it this time? I completely let it go.
It took me to be diagnosed with a terminal illness to find that my worth is not tied up in my pant size. It took examining those things in my life that I truly cared about, my son, my family, my friends, for me to say that this is not important anymore. I can continue to control my health in as much as I am able such as eating healthy and exercising when I can, but I cannot control what my hormones and medications do to my body. Not anymore. If I want to stay alive, I have to not care about that anymore. Saying that to someone who wasted so much of her life caring about it more than is healthy takes time and practice. You have to change your entire way of thinking and your relationship with food. It’s funny that now that I have given myself permission to eat the cookie, I find I no longer want it. What was once a reward now holds less value that it used to have.
I have to say that there is great freedom in reaching this place. I have never been as comfortable in my skin as I currently am. Appreciating your body for what it gives you instead of what is lacking is something I have been searching for my entire life. Sure, society can be cruel and beauty standards still cater to one demographic, but do I let it affect me? Not anymore. I’m too focused on doing what I need to do to keep my body well and here for as long as possible. I’ll never be a size 2 and honestly, I don’t want to be. If I am ever that tiny then things with my health have probably taken a severe turn for the worse.
I don’t intend to punish my body any longer. My body has traveled the world, birthed a child, danced in the lights, and survived with cancer for over ten years. How amazing is that?
Editor’s Note: We are extremely saddened to share that on Saturday, September 12th, 2020, April Doyle passed away. We know that April’s advocacy efforts continue to reach many. She will be deeply missed.
Caregivers: Do you practice self-care?