Being Well

Bulimia and Cancer: What’s the Link?

If you have an eating disorder, talk to your doctor about getting treatment and ways you can prevent other health complications

Eating disorders affect people of all ages, from all walks of life. Most people know that eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia, can wreak havoc within the bodies of people living with these conditions. But if you have an eating disorder, you may not understand your risk of serious consequences later on in life. And even though we’re still learning about these conditions, some disorders, like bulimia and cancer, appear to have a link.

If you have an eating disorder, it can seem like no one understands what you’re going through. But there is help, and it’s possible to recover in time to lessen your chances of developing other serious conditions, like cancer. Getting help from a professional healthcare team can significantly reduce your likelihood of developing complications from your eating disorder.

Bulimia and Cancer

Bulimia, also known as bulimia nervosa, is a serious eating disorder characterized by periods of bingeing and purging. People living with bulimia are typically preoccupied with their outward appearance and weight, and they may be extremely critical of their body shape. Because bulimia affects self-esteem and self-image, it can be an especially difficult disorder to overcome.

People living with bulimia often purge by way of forced vomiting after ingesting large amounts of food. Over time, repeated vomiting exposes the esophagus to higher amounts of stomach acid. As acid contacts the lining of the esophagus, it irritates and inflames the esophageal walls. Eventually, this irritation can lead to a condition called Barrett’s esophagus.

If you have Barrett’s esophagus, you may not have any symptoms, or your symptoms may mimic those of another disorder called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). But Barrett’s esophagus puts you at higher risk for developing esophageal cancer because of changes to the lining of your esophagus caused by exposure to stomach acid, according to the Journal of Eating Disorders.

Some research published in Cancer Epidemiology shows a six-fold increase in the likelihood of developing esophageal cancer if you have been hospitalized with an eating disorder like bulimia. However, other known risk factors, like alcohol consumption and smoking, may also play a role in increasing your cancer risk.

Lowering Your Cancer Risk

Getting treatment for an eating disorder like bulimia can seem impossible, but there are people who can help. The first step in lowering your cancer risk is addressing your bulimia head-on. It can take years to recover from an eating disorder like bulimia, but with your doctor’s help, you can create a care team who will support and guide you through your recovery.

Additionally, your doctor may recommend certain screening tests if your risk for developing esophageal cancer is higher. While there are no one-size-fits-all screening recommendations, your doctor may suggest an upper endoscopy as a way to examine the inside of your esophagus for any changes.

An endoscopy allows your doctor to screen your esophagus for potential cancer. If necessary, your doctor can take a tissue biopsy during the same procedure. Biopsies help confirm or rule out if certain tissues are cancerous.

Eating disorders like bulimia are extremely difficult to live with. But, by getting help as soon as possible, you can reduce your chances of serious complications, like cancer, later in life. If you’re concerned about bulimia and cancer, speak with your doctor about treatment and possible screening.

If you or someone you know may have an eating disorder, UVA can help.

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Sarah Handzel, BSN, RN