Breast Cancer Survivors – What Does Losing Weight Mean?

Yo-yo dieting. Can you identify? For breast cancer survivors it’s a double entendre.

My weight has flip-flopped for many years, long before receiving my first breast cancer diagnosis. Not that I was very heavy to begin with, or gained huge amounts of weight. I’m talking about that extra pesky 15-20 pounds around the stomach on my 5’7″ frame.

Much of that weight gain is due to compulsive overeating, a binge disorder with which I have struggled since teenage years. My mother would chide me at sixteen for eating a quart of ice cream when I got home from school, when dinner would be in two hours. And when I received three Easter baskets every year, I wouldn’t just bite off the chocolate bunny’s ears. I’d ingest the whole thing along with a few marshmallow eggs for good measure an hour before a meal.

Things only became worse when I got married and had kids. The boys always had sweets in the house, so Stealth Mom would grab a stash of cookies or a quart of ice cream on her way upstairs to her computer. I even stole candy from my sons’ rooms, always promising myself that I would replenish their supplies. I’d also gulp down chocolate chips-intended only for cookie dough-straight from the bag in which they came.

I thought my diagnosis of breast cancer, the estrogen-receptor-positive kind, would put a stop to bingeing on high-fat goodies. Because estrogen is made by fat cells. I needed to reduce my fat intake to quell any cancer cells that might lurk in my body. My weight zoomed up during chemo treatment, as does the weight of most breast cancer survivors, but I got it under control soon after chemo ended by resuming my exercise regimen.

At least until I received a second diagnosis of breast cancer at 52.

The pathology of this second tumor warranted the “big-guns” chemo that made me gain about 15 pounds. The added baggage proved hard to shed this time as menopause sank in and age crept up on me. I believed, however, that my secret snacking could continue because I was taking a daily estrogen-depleting medicine Arimidex to ward off a recurrence. Surely this medicine would attack any estrogen produced by my fat cells. But I couldn’t help reading those articles reporting a higher risk of recurrence in overweight and obese women. Was I considered overweight? Not according to my body mass index and the standard medical charts. Still, my clothes were feeling tighter and tighter, not only on the bottom, but on the top. Now was the time either to clean out my wardrobe of all the size-8 jeans and other accoutrements that went with the slender figure, or actually try to reduce.

In March 2010 I discontinued the Arimidex. The doctor said I had taken it long enough. At that point I realized I needed to get rid of all extra poundage. I no longer had my prescription crutch to lean on. Plus, I wasn’t sure if my husband was so thrilled anymore with the way I looked. I wasn’t flabby, but neither was I svelte as in the days of yore.

Something had to be done.

So I decided in early June to do what millions of Americans try to do each year: lose weight. This time it would not be a diet, but a so-called lifestyle change. I had already attempted such a feat in 1999 because I developed lymphedema, a swelling condition worsened by weight gain. The weight came off and stayed off for six months. I thought I had it licked. Wasn’t a habit formed in three weeks?

Alas, the weight started coming on again, little by little, as I snacked a bit here, a bit there. I stopped avoiding buffets and church potlucks. I resumed walking the candy aisles of the drugstores and supermarkets in search of sale items to put in my secret storage drawer next to my computer. How could I give up my comfort food, my emotional eating fix?  I found myself back to where I was:  20 pounds heavier with an arm swollen with lymphedema.

But 2010 is going to be different. In three months I have lost over 17 pounds. My not-so-private secret? Consciously eating more fruits and vegetables and avoiding any kind of sweet snack or dessert. Journaling my eating patterns and weighing twice a week also helps. I only eat three meals a day, choosing whole grains and small portions.

People have started to notice my weight loss, even though it doesn’t show dramatically on my body. Young adults and baby boomers have complimented me, and my husband thanked me. I was thrilled to get visible results and enjoy better-fitting clothes. To go with my new figure I bought new skinny-jean leggings.

But then the inevitable happened. A senior asked me if I was all right.

“Yes, I am fine. Why do you ask?” I ventured.

“Well, I noticed you lost some weight.”

“Yes, I did. And it’s a good thing.” I wanted to sound convincing, but wasn’t sure if I was getting across to this concerned lady.

“Is it? I just hope it’s not your cancer.”

Well, this comment burst my bubble. I expected someone to make this observation eventually, as weight loss in a cancer survivor could be serious, could mean wasting away. But I was hurt that this woman thought I would not tell her if I had a cancer recurrence. Of course, I would tell everyone who would listen so more prayers would go heavenward.

Then I remembered that this poor soul had lost her husband to cancer. That explained everything to me, and increased my compassion for caregivers and widows of cancer patients.

As a breast cancer survivor I advise eating right to improve one’s health, and exercising if appropriate. As I am not a doctor, I strongly suggest asking an oncologist about the advisability of weight loss for an individual patient, especially if osteoporosis or anorexia is a possibility. And if the weight loss is involuntary, a cancer survivor should definitely seek medical help.

I’m happy with my new weight and hope to maintain it for life. Binge eating did not suit me nor my size-8 pantsuits. Yo-yo’s are out, bon-bons are out, but pom-poms are in. I’m cheering for patients and survivors to get into the groove of healthful living.