Cancer and Weight

by Siobhan HebronSurvivorNovember 12, 2021View more posts from Siobhan Hebron

Trigger Warning/Content Warning: weight, eating disorders, body image, diets, starvation, cancer

I struggled with body image my entire life. My ‘goal’ figure undoubtedly came from cultural standards, growing up during heroin chic’s heyday in the ‘90s. That goal was similarly praised by my white, middle class family, even if that enforcement went mostly unacknowledged by them. I started sucking in my stomach by elementary school and by second or third grade I had consciously started evaluating my body. By then I identified myself as the ‘fat’ child/cousin/person in the family.

Throughout middle school I got the message that “I would be so pretty once I lost the baby weight.” I was admonished from wearing various types of clothing; sleeveless and horizontal striped shirts became demons lurking in my closet overnight. I hated summer when tank tops and shorts were the norm – you can suck in your stomach, but you can’t suck in your arms or thighs. So I avoided pool and beach parties for the humiliation of wearing a bathing suit. I can say looking back that I caused myself to miss out on a lot of things, primarily stemming from this eating/image disorder. For the record, children hear and deeply internalize how their elders talk about people and bodies and the inherent worth ascribed to that image.

Throughout the 2000s I tried Weight Watchers, I think I tried Atkins, I know I visited an herbalist in Chinatown – I munched on celery because rumor at the time was that your body burned calories while breaking down the fibrous strings in the vegetable. I wished I could be an athlete instead of an artist so that my hobby and passion could also keep me slim. My body felt awkward to me, constantly not fitting in the spaces I wanted it to fit, not looking the way I wanted it to look. Every movement was a conscious act for me to avoid being perceived as fat. I learned the poses that worked best to minimize my body in photos. I started the South Beach diet in high school and lost a noticeable amount of weight, but then a Christmas cruise destroyed all of that hard work, as I indulged in the gross capitalist extravagance that cruises offer.

And in one of the few comments that actually acknowledged my struggle, a cousin remarked that dieting must be so hard because “people literally need food to survive.” Still, I hated myself for eating. I drank weight loss tea every morning, and I forced myself onto the elliptical for thirty minutes to an hour to atone for the single carbohydrate I’d eaten during the day, even though I despised exercise. I only ever viewed physical exertion as a punishment; that’s all it had ever been, as opposed to a nourishment for my body. My entire senior year of high school I didn’t indulge in pizza parties or class celebrations. I was terrified of the ultimate body exposure and therefore avoided intimacy with anyone. I wished so badly that I hated food.

When I went to college, I signed up for the meal plan with the fewest meals because I hoped that would force me to curb my food intake. I thought, “Now that I’m on my own I’ll really be able to starve myself effectively.” I felt that if only I could lose the weight I’d be set – I could be happy. I could focus my attention on other things that actually mattered; I could be the perfect person I needed to be. When I came home from college I would get up at 5am, put on sweats and run, only to come back and climb into bed as if I had done nothing. I tracked my calories and exercise to single digit units. In my final years of college, I lied my way into the most extreme of weight loss programs: 800 calories a day via shakes, water and potassium pills under the supervision of a doctor. I then continued unsupervised for months afterward.

I remember visiting a high school friend one weekend who asked of a new addition to our clique, “When did we start including fat people in our group?” Instantly the fear of discovery, but also gratefulness that I was evidently not included in this ‘fat’ category, rushed through my body. Through all of these years, at my heaviest and most devastated, my weight was my most shameful, visible secret; a true splinter in my brain that I could really never get total relief from. Yet to this day, I don’t have any semblance of a disordered eating diagnosis in my chart. This is one problem with our prejudiced reliance on superficial identifiers – average-sized people might have an eating disorder, happy looking people might be incredibly depressed, young people might be critically ill.

In the following years, I still focused intensely on body image, but I did get better. I found my match in a yoga instructor and I actually found joy in using my body physically. I was doing well in 2014 when I got diagnosed with brain cancer. Having gotten a little further into feminism and life, I distinctly remember saying on the day I got home after almost two weeks in the hospital that “I would never be subjected to body image models/stress ever again,” and I genuinely meant it, finally knowing what true body trauma meant.

Still, I found myself clinging to the weight I lost during my hospital stay and mourning that as I gained it back afterwards. Instead of valuing my life, I became hyper-focused on the changes in my body and punished myself for them. When your body is suddenly tracked and measured down to its minutiae, it’s hard to not fall back on your most internalized, flawed measures of self-control.

As I continued to be observed to a new degree of medical specificity with the numbers my body produced of grave importance now, I found myself furious at doctors who throughout the years had dismissed my headaches as symptoms of PMS, of exercising too much or not at all, of being dehydrated or overweight. There is this crisis in healthcare: not believing women, not believing young people, and not believing fat people – it costs lives and livelihoods.

I looked forward to the weight I might lose during treatment, but also feared I might lose too much too fast and it would create skin rolls. I asked my mental health professionals only for anxiety/depression medication that would not cause weight gain, regardless of whether they were better suited to me or not. I didn’t want to take prednisolone for my severe chemo induced nausea during a cycle because as a steroid, I knew it could cause weight gain. I had utterly transformed into a #ConsumptiveChic patient.

During treatment I weighed myself every morning, after having gone to the bathroom, taking a self-induced Silkwood shower and undressing completely for the lowest possible weight I could achieve. I even legitimately considered contacting a dealer for cocaine because at the time, a drug addiction seemed infinitely more desirable than cancer or fatness, a sentiment I know now as deeply flawed, offensive and very much of ‘the grass is always greener on the other side’ when it comes to illness. I feared my scan days, not because of the potential news about my brain tumor, but because I knew I’d be weighed, and I knew the mental toll it would take on me if I knew the number. I once starved myself for over sixty hours during active cancer treatment in preparation for a scan day. Maybe that’s simply how my ‘scanxiety’ presented itself, but I’m tempted to think not. Research shows that major life events and changes are easy triggers for eating disorders to flare back up again, and that’s precisely what I now know happened.

And every day I hated myself for hating myself, knowing conceptually how unjust it was. I was so angry that I couldn’t get out of my head, that I kept denying myself so much joy at a time when I didn’t know how much more time I had to enjoy things. And still, as I struggled between this dichotomy of literal survival and emotional survival, I was repeatedly praised for my new size. At a time when my weight-based thoughts were so intrusive that I was waging a mental battle every second not to be crushed under the suffocating melange of guilt, shame and just how much I despised my own body – I was touched on my lower back, stroked on the sides of my stomach and hips as if I were an object being appraised for its restoration efforts. At my grandmother’s funeral, a family member remarked to me that “chemo suit[ed me]….” I’ll remember that comment until the day I die for its self-conscious, casual, innocuous cruelty.

Going on five plus years later, I’m actually in the best place I’ve ever been in in terms of body image. Maybe because I’ve finally embraced my intersectional feminism, or a diverse framework of social disability? Or maybe because I’m the thinnest I’ve ever been because of a now years long lack of appetite due to anxiety/depression? I don’t know; but what I strived for for years in my younger days I’ve finally reached without trying or even wanting to anymore.

I haven’t weighed myself in about five years, I don’t let doctors tell me my weight, and I refuse to engage in casual conversations about diets, weight, weight loss or body shaming. Still, I get comments to this day about how good I look now. I used to get comments about how much I ate – now I get comments about how much I don’t eat. It’s strange, but people really seem to be incapable of not commenting on appearance or appetite. And each time I wrestle with how to respond: do I lash out at the individual who is the latest final straw for me? Do I come up with a rote response? Commenting on and discussing weight is so commonplace in our world that it feels wrong to discipline someone who does it out of societal habit, even when it comes with the associated trauma of a fifteen-plus year experience for me. But I know for a fact we’ve been so socially conditioned to praise thinness, that people truly don’t realize how gross it is to compliment someone on their weight loss due to a life-threatening condition. So let me make it really clear, having lost five friends in the last six years to this illness, cancer is not a fucking diet.

I know that I never entered the larger “fat range”; that my fatness never really existed outside of my own mind or my family’s, and I feel a sense of not having been fat enough to have experienced this emotional and physical rollercoaster. But I’ve also learned that negative experiences are valid for the individual, to whatever degree they are experienced, and that eating disorders are not determined by your size.

Cancer taught me what no feminist education or body positivity could teach me – I genuinely, truly love every single body now, including my own.

I.

Love.

Bodies.

Every unique one for exactly what they are. I love them for the rolls, for the creases, for the smoothness, for the hardness or the roundness, for the angles and the curves, for the femininity, the masculinity and the androgyny, for the athleticism and the casualness, for the sickness and the health, for the hair and the lack of hair, for the missing parts and the parts that have been added and the aids, for the largeness and the smallness, for the scars and impairments, for the disability and for every single thing that we are taught to despise and fear about bodies. I truly love my own and I love everyone else’s.

If you are struggling with mental health, eating disorders or body image issues, please contact NAMI or NEDA for more help.

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This piece originally ran in the September 2021 issue of the Elephants and Tea magazine. Click here to read!

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One Comment

  • Maria Frazer says:

    Your story is so insightful and inspiring for me and other cancer patients. I also think about my weight at every clinic visit and I think I remember my weight more than my treatment progress.
    I’m so happy that you found how we can love our bodies especially our bodies. They have been through a lot with treatment, and yet, they are still there trying their best to properly function.
    I really liked reading your piece. Thank you so much for sharing.

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