Coping With Emotions

Eating Disorder Recovery and Cancer: How Can Your Care Team Help?

Your eating disorder recovery and cancer treatment don't have to counteract each other. Talk to your treatment team, including your nutritionist and therapist, for the care you need.

At least 8 million Americans suffer from eating disorders. Fortunately, eating disorders are treatable, and you can relearn healthy eating habits and coping skills.

But recovery from one of these conditions can take months or, in some cases, years, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. What happens if you’re diagnosed with cancer while working to overcome an eating disorder? With the help of your cancer care team, you can successfully focus on both your eating disorder recovery and cancer treatments so you can return to the best health possible.

The Link Between Eating Disorders and Cancer

Cancer is a unique disease because it affects every aspect of your life. Your physical, emotional and psychological health are all affected by your condition. In many cases, people living with cancer experience a loss of appetite and changes in weight due to the cancer itself and their cancer treatments. According to the Journal of Nursing and Midwifery Research, over 50 percent of people living with cancer experience changes to their eating behaviors during their cancer journey.

Anorexia is a common problem for people with cancer. Unfortunately, this condition can have negative consequences on your likelihood of a positive cancer recovery. Anorexia can easily lead to malnutrition, or a lack of adequate nutrition taken in by your body each day. As a result, a loss of lean body mass is common among people with cancer, according to Cancer Network.

If you experience lean body mass loss, you may have a poorer response to cancer treatment, increased side effects from treatment and a poorer overall outcome. You may also be more weak, tired and have a lower quality of life.

Eating Disorder Recovery and Cancer

If you’re recovering from an eating disorder, like anorexia or bulimia, it’s critically important that you have the support of your cancer care team as you focus on getting enough nutrition each day. Taking steps to ensure you receive proper nutrition can make a real difference your treatment and your overall health. Fortunately, there are several ways your cancer care team can help you achieve your eating disorder recovery goals while managing your cancer treatment.

  • Nutritional counseling: Your cancer care team includes oncology dietitians who have special training to help people with cancer achieve a good nutritional status. When you meet with a dietitian, he or she may make several recommendations based on your unique needs. These may include eating several small meals throughout the day or eating more in the morning than in the evening.
  • Appetite stimulants: If nutrition counseling isn’t enough, your doctor may recommend an appetite stimulant medication. An appetite stimulant may help to pique your interest in food and give you the drive to eat, even if your cancer treatment causes side effects like nausea.
  • Medical nutrition therapy: In more serious cases, medical nutrition therapy using enteral or parenteral nutrition is necessary to help prevent malnourishment. Your doctor may recommend using liquid dietary supplements to help you receive nutrition. If necessary, your doctor may recommend certain interventions, like a feeding tube, to help make sure you’re not malnourished.

It’s also important to establish or maintain appointments with your therapist to discuss these challenges. Your mental health is just as vital to your overall well-being.

Balancing eating disorder recovery and cancer can be challenging, but your cancer care team can help you achieve your health goals. If you’re concerned about recovering from an eating disorder and dealing with cancer at the same time, a conversation with your doctor is the first step in developing a plan to help you achieve your best health.

UVA has resources for those struggling with eating disorders. You don't have to go through this alone. Talk to your treatment team today.

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Sarah Handzel, BSN, RN