Radiation and eating disorders.

I’ve finished the radiation therapy for my early-stage breast cancer and despite my anxiety-driven imaginings, things went okay. Physically. Getting your head around the mental stuff is more of a challenge. First, you have to acknowledge something has happened.

I had five weeks of treatment, four of nausea and fatigue, and very little burning compared to some. My skin is resilient it seems, though I did moisturize compulsively. That diligence is probably why the itching only made me moderately crazy and I only worried about my nipple peeling off for a couple of days. That last bit is completely true; I was quite concerned.

There’s another side-effect beyond skin peeling, however, that I’m finding distressing. It’s turning out to be a bit of a bother.

Inundating the breast with radiation causes it to swell. Enough so that the left breast is now sort of oozing out of the bra cup.

Most of it is expected swelling, some of it is weight. My body craved food during treatment. Something about needing energy to deal with the strain on the system. It’s unfortunate – my eating disorder was hoping to lose a bit – what good is cancer if it can’t make you thin – but that’s not a thing that happened.

The extra bit of overall softness I’m dealing with. Struggling but dealing. The swollen breast thing is more difficult.


There’s a school of thought in eating disorder study that suggests women who are afflicted with eating disorders are rejecting their sexuality. They’re trying to hide their femaleness, their ability to attract.

Some even hold the position that all women with eating disorders are gay and the eating disorder is a rejection of their true selves.

The latter is an actual conversation I had with a doctor before he put me on tranquilizers at age twenty.

As it turns out, I’m not gay. There is, however, some validity to the contention that I find sexuality difficult. I was born a little shy but I’m reasonably certain that my rejection is connected to the early childhood sexual abuse which also contributed to the development of my eating disorder.

I think for me, for many, eating disorders are about safety. You’re trying to figure out a way to be safe. For me, being perfect was part of that. “Perfect” protects you from emotional pain, didn’t you know? But not developing overly-female curves was important too.  Sexuality was not safe.

Sexuality is risky. Sexuality can hurt you. Men are dangerous.

These are problematic underlying beliefs.


I take after my paternal grandmother in body. In face, my mom and are spitting – or were until I started self-mutilating. But my body, that’s all grandma. And she had a good one, objectively speaking. Very hourglass. Very curvy.

When I am at a reasonable weight, the inheritance is apparent for all that I hold an extra seven vertical inches. The ratio between my chest and hips and waist is dramatic.

I liked that being underweight made my breasts smaller and the hip to waist ratio less noticeable.

When I’m home, the curves are less of a problem. Home is a safe space. When I’m in the outside world, I like the androgyny of straight lines. I find it terrifying to put the feminine on display.

One would think that by now this fear of the overtly-feminine, this dislike would have abated. I’m fifty, after all. But here we are. Things you don’t deal with don’t magically disappear. Who knew?

There are some things I like about being female. I can take baths and no one curls a lip. I get to wear dangly, sparkly earrings without comment and I can indulge in questionably effective, targeted face creams. I can even cathartically cry during movies. But the visibly sex-related curves cause me grief.

Not everyone who suffers from an eating disorder rejects their sexuality. It depends on a variety of things. But it can happen and it needs to be dealt with. If you don’t it carries on and you find yourself dealing with the same crap decades later. Trust me, it’s annoying.

It’s not possible to be healthy and whole if your way of thinking about yourself requires you to reject fundamental aspects of your nature.

If you are rejecting yourself at an intrinsic level, stop it. What kind of life do you think you can have if you are attacking yourself?

The time to address it is now. I regret the years I chose to do otherwise. Yes, it’s scary to face down the things that hurt us and caused us to withdraw. It feels big and dark and overwhelming. It feels like it will consume us. It’s why we put off addressing it. But the feeling that it will destroy us is a lie.

We can be afraid. We need to do it anyhow. It’s only fear and regardless of what we think, fear is rarely fatal.

I think that may be one of the most helpful things I’ve learned.

Do you struggle to embrace who you are?

12 thoughts on “Radiation and eating disorders.

  1. Yay for completion of radiation! From a lymphedema therapist perspective- if you are comfortable physically with one, you could try wearing a sports or compression bra to address said swelling. You could also YouTube lymphedema or lymphatic massage and try some of that to the area. The other little thingy…..embracing who you are…….sigh- I fluctuate. Today, I am blaming and shaming because I am spinning out over the events of the world and want to make sure I m doing everything I possibly can to be prepared for what’s to come. Or to bolster my favorite local shops. Or to IDK try to find answers and certainty amongst all this uncertainty. A shrivel of hope? So right now- I am angry that I can just let it go and be ok with my present moment. Angry at myself that this is who I am and how I respond. Angry at the world that this is happening. Did I mention I am spinning out?! LOL

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a good idea. I will hit up Amazon – not that I need encouragement for that – and get one.

      Sorry you’re spinning. It’s hard not to some days- the world has become so very weird and there is legitimately a great many things to worry about. It’s hard not to be scared.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks so much for your post, and I’m glad your radiation therapy has gone well.

        I switch between anorexia and compulsive over eating. I’m either very thin or fat. It’s been pointed out to me that this is how I keep people away from me.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. It’s annoying when people point out our motivations and then we have to agree, isn’t it? I hate hearing what my doctors have figured out about me that I haven’t at times. People are hard. I’m finding the absence of them during this time of social distancing relaxing. I feel bad for the sick but the emptiness when forced to go out is nice.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Where do I start? As you were discussing your response to sexuality I was thinking, “are we sisters?” At normal weight I also have a figure. It’s utterly triggering so a part of the eating disorder is straightening that body shape out. And does it matter? I’m retired and live among people who really don’t care. Their greatest concern is why I don’t come back to the card games. However, it’s not about others, it triggers me just feeling it, seeing it.
    Another aspect is not wanting to be seen. I don’t want to be invisible, just not noticed but because of the version of bipolar I have, I tend to be gregarious making everyone around me smile or laugh (pre-pandemic), while I wither inside.
    Okay, please forgive me on this next part. When you talked about cancer and weight loss I actually laughed out loud. I did 4 years of (non-cancer) chemo for HCV. Literally everyone I knew lost loads of weight except ME! I ended up the heaviest I’ve ever been in my life! At the time my thought was, “what’s the point if I can’t lose weight?!” And before that… my first hospitalization in the 80s I met a person who had AIDS. I remember wishing I had that disease, for years, in order to lose weight. Eating disorders make us think the craziest things, doesn’t it?
    I’m so glad you are pulling through despite all the discomfort. Do you find that writing helps you? I’m curious if it gives you an opportunity to be an objective observer, as it does with me? Has it helped you develop self care skills?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I like encountering people who think like me. I used to hate it – it threatened the “special snowflake” status the ED tried to confer on me but now I find it comforting albeit sad. I’m sorry you suffer in that way too.

    I utterly relate to wanting not to be seen. Because being seen brings up other problems like thinking you’re being judged, and having to interact and judging yourself for that, and then questioning your right to exist. Far easier to remain unnoticed.

    The cancer one is interesting, isn’t it? I told a couple of friends that my first thought was relief. “At last, I can let go, let go of this world.” Of course, it wasn’t that advanced but the thought was there. They thought that horrible, disrespectful. They didn’t understand how fatiguing the mental health battle can be.

    Yes, I find writing helps although I struggle a bit with trying not to make it “me, me, me”, trying to make it more widely applicable. But it clarifies what I think sometimes. And people’s advice and comments are helpful. That and philosophy. Philosophy has really helped with my thinking.

    Thank you for reading and commenting. Stay healthy, stay safe. 🙂


  4. My mom just finished radiation on a tumor on her neck near the carotid artery. Her treatment also was 5 weeks. Yesterday she got her certificate for finishing her treatment and rang a bell signifying the end of treatment. Me my twin brother and my dad all supported her for this event. And also supported my mom during her treatment by cooking cleaning and being helpful. My dad drove her to every treatment in the spaghetti bowl of Los Angeles. I congratulate you on your completion of your radiation and your openness and determination throughout your life. You have my respect.

    Liked by 1 person

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