Bulimia and cancer - what you need to know

Catherine Liberty's picture

I remember just a few years ago thinking I knew every bulimia side effect and possible bulimia-related health complication under the sun, until  I read a sentence that totally shook me - “bulimia can cause cancer.”

Now bear in mind that I knew bulimia could cause kidney failure, heart attacks and death before this, but for some reason I’d tried to push those things to the back of my mind.

As ashamed as I am to admit it now, I was always one of those people who thought “that will never happen to me”.

bulimia and cancer

There is something about the word "cancer" that scares us

But the idea of cancer, for some reason was all too familiar. Almost every member of my family has fought cancer at some point in their lives, and many developed the disease at very young ages.

Knowing bulimia could cause cancer wouldn't have changed things

I couldn’t believe that I had suffered with bulimia for over a decade before I realised the true implications of the hideous disease.

Would knowing bulimia could cause cancer have stopped me from being bulimic? Of course not, because bulimia is not a choice.

Knowing side effects wont help you to stop being bulimic...

Would it have encouraged me to seek bulimia treatment sooner? Again I don’t think it would have. For all of those years I knew I was slowly killing myself, I understood that I could drop dead at any moment, and for most of the time I honestly didn’t care.

Maybe it had to do with depression caused by bulimia? Perhaps it was because I never thought I could recover from bulimia so I accepted a fate that was not meant for me.

It’s too late to ponder those things now my bulimic days are long gone and I refuse to regret the past.

What I do want to do today is help you to become more informed about the relationship between bulimia and certain cancers.

You shouldn’t try to scare yourself into recovery

I really understand that knowing bulimia side effects can’t just help you to stop being bulimic, you can’t and shouldn’t “scare yourself into recovery.” 

Take motivation from repairing and nurturing your body instead

In recovery I spent a lot of time thinking about all of the wonderful things that learning to eat normally and stopping bingeing and purging were doing to my body.

I motivated myself by thinking about all of the things I would be able to achieve when I was bulimia free, rather than focusing on the damage that remaining bulimic could cause.

Bulimia and cancer - what you need to know

When we talk about bulimia causing cancer usually the type of cancer it is associated with is esophageal cancer and it’s development has a lot to do with a condition called Barrett's oesophagus.

What is Barrett's esophagus?

Barrett's esophagus is a disorder in which the lining of the esophagus (the tube that carries food from the throat to the stomach) is damaged by stomach acid.

Bulimics are much more likely to develop barrett’s oesophagus because bulimia can cause severe acid reflux (and purging obviously floods the esophagus with acid the same way acid reflux disease would)

1 in 10 people who have constant acid reflux will develop a condition called Barrett's Esophagus

What is the risk of esophageal cancer with Barrett's esophagus?‎

Only Around 1% of people with Barrett's Esophagus will develop a kind of cancer called esophageal adenocarcinoma.

Esophageal cancer in bulimics

Research into esophageal cancer in bulimics is limited and It is difficult to determine the exact prevalence but it appears that about 2% of bulimics will develop bulimia-related cancer. 

You don't nesesserily have to be a chronic bulimic or have suffered for years..

Esophageal cancer is most prevalent among older people however suffering from bulimia may represent an important risk factor in younger people who are diagnosed with the condition.

Several prior case reports into bulimia and cancer describe people who were diagnosed at a young age - so even in very young people, bulimia may represent a risk factor for adenocarcinoma of the esophagus.

In one report the case of a 27 year old woman who had developed adenocarcinoma of the esophagus was highlighted...

She had suffered with bulimia for just one year and while experts couldn't be sure that her bulimia had caused the condition it did seem very likely.

The study highlighted the fact that repeated micro-trauma or damage due to vomiting may contribute to the malignant transformation of the esophageal tissue.

The relationship of bulimia & oral cancer is something that has been studied for years and it would appear that while there is definitely a connection, cases of bulimia-related cancers are very low.

If you’re interested in learning more about Bulimia Helps bulimia treatment success then why not take a look at what some of our members have to say about their own experiences with us via our success stories section!

14 comments

Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
My sister died recently at

My sister died recently at the age of 40 of panceatic cancer, leaving behind two young children. Unbeknown to our family, she had had bulimia since she was 18. She had experienced chronic tummy pain for some years, which was attributed to irritable bowel syndrome but which was probably chronic pancreatitis.

I believe she would have at least accepted the need for psychological therapy if she had been aware of the physical risk, if only for the sake of her children.

Many people, like my sister, consider bulimia to be "safe". The health risks should be more publicized, e.g. in magazines, especially since many affected people do not disclose their disorder to anyone and so will not obtain this information from professionals.

Massachusetts2012
Massachusetts2012's picture
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Joined: 9 Mar 2013
I have had 2 ulcers and get

I have had 2 ulcers and get reflux.I was hospitalized because of blood loss.I had taken NSADs for years due to back problems but i know having and eating disorder was probably a factor.
It catches up with you.I hope my sharing can help someone and reinforce my desire to work on my recovery.

Hi im new to support group but have struggled for years with food issues

Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
I am a 31 year old who

I am a 31 year old who suffered from bulemia off and on for about 9 years. I wasn't aware of ANY of the side effects. I was recently diagnosed with stage 2 stomach cancer.. and I can't help but wonder if I did this to myself.

Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
Im 30 and have been bulimic

Im 30 and have been bulimic off and on for 8 years. I quit about 2 months ago because I noticed a pinching pain in my chest on the right side when I drink cold stuff. Its every drink. I'm supposed to have a scope soon. Im scared its cancer:-(

Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
I am 29 and have had bulimia

I am 29 and have had bulimia for about ten years. Aside from needing all of my upper teeth to be replaced with full upper dentures (just did that, sigh), I also have severe gastroparesis. This means I throw up most food without trying. The bulimic aspect is now only that I don't care that I throw up unintentionally... I take advantage of gastroparesis by eating whatever I want because WtF, it comes back up on its own anyhow. This is a depressing situation but lack the willpower to follow the extremely rigid/strict "low-fiber, low-fat diet" that is needed to alleviate the gadstroparesis induced vomiting. Some people say EDs can cause gastroparesis to begin with... I don't know if that is true... But if they do, I can see how gastroparesis, in turn, would also lead to cancer with this excessive vomiting. It is so embarrassing... I need to bring cups and plastic bags etc. with me in the car in casei vomit. Gross, but I am still alive...kind of. Not sure for how long. Best of luck to others who might be struggling with similar issues.

Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
I am a 46 year old woman who

I am a 46 year old woman who has been afflicted with bulimia for over 30 years now, with bouts of anorexia throughout. I can throw up at will by just tightening my gut muscles. I was in treatment centers all my teen years and ended up coding at one of those same hospitals. I had my upper teeth capped when I was 23 year, bled from my esphogus more then a few times over the past 10 years, have autoimmune issues, pain in my gut every morning, chest pain, neck pain, back pain, bleeding hemorriods and irritable bowels. I don't hide the fact that my affliction has the better of me when asked. Yet I hide my food consumption and purging when I am in the act. It is a shameful behavior, and though I want to quit there is a part of me that must be fatalistic because I continue this daily behavior. I did have a few years where I didn't purge but I controlled my diet and exercised excessively. I am scared but the urge is not ....my mom and sister have both had lymphomas. My labs are great except for low in Vit. D. I want to be scared straight! I know I won't last long in doing this behavior but stopping is not easy. I am under doctor's care.

Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
I'm 15 and have been

I'm 15 and have been bulimic/anorexic for almost a year. I remeber the first time I purged like it was crystal clear. I had no idea what i was starting. At that point, it was a choice. Now, it's an addiction. It doesn't matter what advice anyone gives you or how many times people tell you that you look fine the way you are. This disease consumes you. I had my throat examined by a G.I. specialist and tomorrow I get the results. Part of my wants to stop worse than anything because I'm terrified of what I'm doing to myself, but the other part loves the results and will stop at nothing. I don't want to cut my life short or let this disorder get the best of me. I wish anyone struggling with an eating disorder the best of luck.

Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
I've come to believe that

I've come to believe that there are the recreational bulimics and the hard core addicts, so to say. I am one of the latter. I don't throw up because I overeat but I am now dependant on the very act. I find it enjoyable. I am aware of the risks...It'd be foolish to think I could do something so contrary to nature without any adverse effects. I can't stop and so I know I will die of this. I think that there is a point when it is experimentation and there is hope. Raising awareness may help some of those (especially young girls) on that side of the line.

Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
I have been bulimic for 14

I have been bulimic for 14 Yrs struggling only wishing and prayingfor help no luck so far I have five beautiful babies I was told by a doctor that I had signs of throat cancer because of a huge lump on my throat it looks like scar tissue from excessive amounts of acid I'm scared but can't stop I have no insurance but would give up everything in my life to get help anyone know who could help me at low cost and any other signs of throat cancer.

Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
I wasn't able to make myself

I wasn't able to make myself throw up until I learned how at 25. I'm almost 28 now. I usually only purge when I'm feeling really out of control or after I knowingly eat more than what I should in a day. (I almost always purge at night). My throat hurts and my glands under my jaw hurt. I'm terrified of getting cancer or having heart failure. If I do I deserve it. I know what I'm doing to my body. My mom knows I do it occasionally and she gets mad at me knowing I'm hurting myself. I know it too, and I keep promising each time will be the last.

Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
I am over weight, I haven't

I am over weight, I haven't always been so. At 15 I began excessively exercising, starving myself, and at 16 met my first boyfriend. He was overweight. His mother fed him huge meals and gave me the same amount too, but I just couldn't eat it. She made comments that I was ungrateful for leaving food, so I forced myself to eat these huge meals. My tiny frame couldn't take it, so I used to purge.
I got caught doing it, by him. It upset him so much I tried to stop. At 24 I had s break down. Things had gone wrong in our relationship, he became abusive, I started to binge and purge. It made me feel better-like the feeling you get if you have ever self harmed. I became a recluse almost. Over 5rys I got bigger and bigger. I still binge and purge, people don't expect a fat person to make themselves sick, like bulimic fat people do not exhist! But I do exhist and I am not getting psychological help and support. I worry about cancer, I worry that I have ruined my body.
Thank you so much to everyone who has posted the above comments. Reading them made me feel like I was not alone, and spurred me to get help.
Thank you so much.

Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
To the person who left a

To the person who left a message saying 'I have been a bulimic for 14yrs, and has a lump in her throat', look on the Mind website. I myself, am manic depressive and have been bulimic since I was 16. Whilst having therapy, this has come out. I am now reviving councelling for both issues. I didn't realise eating disorders can be treated with the same councelling for mental health. Go on to the website see if you can find support from there.

Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
Iv had the same eating

Iv had the same eating disorder 14years had cancer of the thyroid and total thyroid and parathyroid ectomy I'm under doctors care now due to gal bladder removal and I have a fear ther is something else underlying in my stomach iv had helicobactor infection in my stomach twice only family no of my eating disorder not friends nor my fiancé I dnt make My self sick however I do binge as its like a hand in hand effect it's goin to come strait bk I wish there was a simple fix for these eating disorders!

Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
I'm 16 years old and ive been

I'm 16 years old and ive been bulimic on and off since i was about fifteen. I know that the results are horrible and it can kill you but i want nothing more but to be thin. I remember trying to puke because i wanted to be bulimic because i was over weight. And i finally did it and i was so happy that i was able to. when i first started i didnt do it much and i would keep down some food but now its becoming an addiction and i feel disgusting eating even a little piece of chocolate and I just want to puke everything out. I'm scared that its going to get worse. I havent been affected by any of the possible effects... yet. and im scared to but even though i know the possible effects i cant get myself to stop because i want to see the results. I want to be thin and i feel sorry formyself because i weigh 130 and for my age thats not even bad. But i just want to be thin and i just want people to talk to, people like me that cant stand looking at themselves in the nude , people my age and suffer from the same thing. I want a collar bone and i want to be thin to the point where i dont have rolls when i sit. i want a thigh gap and being bulimic seems the easiest way to get that

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