Cancer Gave Me An Eating Disorder

Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
As told to Darlena Cunha.

Being told you have breast cancer at the age of 37 is a like a kick in the gut.

My name is Danielle Adams. I am a wife, a mother, an office manager and a Star Wars lover. But to many of those who have witnessed my battle with illness, either online or off, I am only one thing: a cancer survivor. Once you’re diagnosed with cancer, that descriptor overshadows everything else, perhaps because it can carry a death sentence. I am a cancer survivor, but now I'm also desperately and illogically afraid of food.

I was diagnosed on March 29, 2013. When I got to the doctor’s office, they told me it felt like a cyst, and I had to push to get a mammogram. No one seemed to think it was a big deal. That is, until the pictures came through. After that, they rushed me to a second mammogram, then an ultrasound, then a biopsy. At that point, I already knew it was cancer — I was just waiting for them to tell me.

A few minutes later, they led me and my husband to a room, and the physician’s assistant walked in. “So, you have breast cancer. We will give you a minute,” she said, and then walked out. Stage 2 Triple Negative Breast Cancer. “What the hell are we supposed to do?” I asked. It seemed like a lifetime until my appointment with an oncologist 10 days later. Every moment of every day, my mind was screaming at me: “I have a 3-and-a-half-year-old daughter. She needs her mommy. Am I going to die?” At home and waiting, I had nothing to keep my mind off it. So I turned to Google.

I now know that was a big mistake. I started researching my type of cancer and all sorts of pages popped up, from medical websites to news articles to the worst of the worst, blogs. I love blogs, don’t get me wrong, but cancer blogs are written by amateurs, patients, family members of survivors — anyone really. You don’t need any credentials to type something on the internet, and the risk of coming across false, even harmful, information is very real.

When you are facing possible death, your mind is vulnerable. You’re looking for anything that could help. And there’s nothing. But then you come across a blog that tells you that you can do something: You can take control of your diet. Specifically, you can eliminate sugar from your diet. And, sure, the American Cancer Society says that’s not going to help, but what if the experts got it wrong? It wouldn’t be the first time. At the very least, cutting out sugar won’t make you worse, right? So what could be the harm?

When you are facing possible death, your mind is vulnerable.

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When I shared my cancer journey on Facebook, I had online friends — people I knew through parenting groups, or other online activities — coming out of the woodwork, telling me not even to bother with chemotherapy. Sugar, many of them said, was the real culprit. Their words scared me. I hadn’t asked for outside advice, but I was getting it all the same.

I brushed the idea off at first, but then I went back online. Sure, The Mayo Clinic stated categorically that sugar doesn’t cause cancer. But respectable looking publications (at least, I thought they were) seemed to have a different take. Dr. Sircus told me that “sugar and cancer were locked in a death grip.” CancerActive, meanwhile, linked to a dozen studies that allegedly mapped a clear link between sugar and cancer. Mercola reprinted an article titled “Cancer’s Sweet Tooth” by an actual PhD, stating that it was unbelievable that more people weren’t cutting sugar from their diet. Even the actually legitimate Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics published paragraphs of lengthy jargon that amounted to “sugar feeds all cells, and therefore, in a way, it does feed cancer cells.”

The messages added up in my brain to this: You gave yourself this cancer with your diet, and if you don’t stop eating sugar right now, you will die. And if you ever eat it again, the cancer will come back. When something like cancer happens to you, you need something to blame. And what’s an easier target than yourself? Especially when you already feel so lousy.

All of this went directly against my doctor’s opinion. He never mentioned any specific diet to me, he just told me to eat well — adding that when I started chemotherapy, I could expect my taste buds to change and that eating ice cream and macaroni and cheese would be better than eating nothing.

Three weeks after my diagnosis, I started chemotherapy. The plan was to have four rounds, and then a double mastectomy, followed by reconstruction. But that didn’t cut it. After the mastectomy, I needed four additional rounds of chemotherapy. The treatment made me so sick that, from May to September, I hardly made it to work at the sheet metal company where I was a manager.

Mentally, I was a wreck, too. Rapid thoughts fired in succession, but I was too tired to grasp at them. They left a residue of unattended fear in their wake. Outwardly, everything was going as planned, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was going to die.

As it happened, actually losing my breasts wasn’t traumatic for me. I was lucky — the reconstruction looked great. And I was too tired and too scared about my own survival to really worry about my appearance. Although the chemo and radiation killed my appetite, my mind was still screaming at me to check every single thing I ate for any trace of sugar. It didn’t make any sense, but I had no control over the intrusive thoughts.

Although the chemo and radiation killed my appetite, my mind was still screaming at me to check every single thing I ate for any trace of sugar.

And so the weight just started falling off. I hadn’t even realized it because I had been wearing yoga pants a lot, but one day over the summer, I put on jeans, and they slipped off of my waist. And let me be honest here: I liked it. I liked being thin. I’d finally lost my baby weight, and more.

While I had never had a great relationship with food, I’d also never fallen into disordered eating. But now I was starving myself. I read the back of every package at the grocery store to see if foods had sugar in them. I learned all the different types and names of sugar, and avoided all of them.

Being afraid of food meant questioning every dietary choice I made, not only for me, but for my daughter. No hot dogs, only organic, almond butter, wheat rice… I was struggling but too embarrassed and afraid to ask for help. My family was already doing so much for my body. How could I ask them to take care of my brain, too?

My sister actually put a stop to it. One day before a chemo session, my doctor asked how I was, and I told him I felt just fine. She interrupted and told him I was so thin because I was refusing to eat. He grabbed me by the shoulders, looking right into my eyes. “What are you doing?” he asked. “Eat. You need to eat. We didn’t do all this so you could shrink away on us. You need the strength that food gives you to withstand these procedures.”

My husband started watching me more closely after that. “You have to eat,” everyone around me started telling me. And I wanted to, but I was paralyzed by an irrational fear. You are sick and trying to find a reason for it. If you blame food, at least there is a culprit. And an action plan. Maybe I just shouldn’t eat at all, I thought. My stomach hurt most of the time anyway.

Somehow, I made it through the ordeal alive. I’m coming up on three years since my diagnosis, and the cancer is in remission. But food is still something I struggle with daily. Whenever someone posts an article about their new fad diet, I can’t help but read it, and the anxiety comes flooding back. Or if I eat regularly for a few days in a row, my brain thinks, “Wow, that was a lot of sugar, you better stop this.”

Do I have an eating disorder? Probably. I feel like even though cancer didn’t break my body, it may have broken my brain. Being afraid of food isn’t healthy — for me or my daughter. In fact, she’s the one who’s really saving me from this. She’s started noticing my eating habits and keeps asking about them. “Oh, mommy, why aren’t you eating with us? Oh, mommy, you are just having that little bit?”

She’s a healthy and happy girl, and I want her to stay that way. I would be devastated if I passed my food issues along to my daughter. For her, I fight to get out from under fear’s grip. I force myself to eat, and over time, it gets more and more normal.

If any of this sounds like you, get help. I didn't realize I was in the grip of an eating disorder until I was lucky enough to be working my way out of it. I managed to persuade myself that not eating was a by-product of my physical diagnosis, and I was wrong. That's how insidious this can be. By the time I started reading about 'fear of food,’ I was in remission and already on my way to regaining my normal diet — even though it's a battle. But I’m confident I’m on the right path: Each day my cancer stays away is another day closer to eating healthy.

For much more information about eating disorders, or if you think you need help, contact the National Eating Disorders Association.

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