I've struggled with my weight for my entire life. I'm a 6'3" large-framed guy that most people think surely must have played football, so 300 pounds might not have looked like a whole lot on me, but it was still way too much. Through a lot of discipline and hard work many years ago, long before cancer, I finally managed to trim myself down to a far more healthy 240-250 pounds, and felt and looked good. I gained a bit of weight over the holidays one year, and saw 260 on the scale. I shook my head, and knew it was time to hunker down once again to keep my weight from spiraling out of control. And then I was diagnosed with cancer.
I was in a state of shock. The last thing on my mind was managing my weight at that point, but as the reality of my cancer diagnosis sunk in and I was about to start chemotherapy in March of 2011, I thought to myself, well at least I might lose that bit of excess during chemo! Chemotherapy affects everybody differently. You could very well lose weight if you end up having zero appetite from feeling sick constantly, and this is true for many. For me? Pardon the pun, but fat chance!
A confluence of factors conspired against me, from extreme fatigue, steroids causing me to balloon up, and out of control stomach acid production for which the only relief was to keep on eating, to give it something to absorb. Otherwise, I felt like I was constantly on the verge of gagging, and so I had to keep eating and the pounds piled on. It was so demoralizing to watch years of discipline and hard work going to waste, but it's just how things worked out, and I finished my five month fight against cancer back at nearly 300 pounds again! I had never felt more miserable and disgusting in my life, but I was still here and had my first all clear, and that's what counted.
As far as weight gain during treatment, body image issues, and tips on losing weight after cancer, here are some hopefully helpful tips.
1. CUT YOURSELF SOME SLACK
Don't be critical of yourself if you gain weight while fighting cancer, and nobody else worth your while should either. Your body is going through hell, and you're just along for the ride. What's most important is to make it through your treatments, and to survive. There's no bonus points for having lost weight, nor are there any penalties if you gained some! If it happens, it happens.
2. TRY TO STAY ACTIVE IF YOU CAN
Whatever you can do to stay active during treatments will help to minimize the impact to your body, maintain your strength, and help make your recovery easier later. If you're able to keep going to the gym or stay in any sort of exercise routine, God bless you, keep doing it. I couldn't, and paid dearly for it later.
3. CLEAN UP YOUR DIET
For most people, we just have to eat whatever we can keep down during our treatments, but try to maintain a healthy diet after cancer. Chemotherapy and the bizarre after-effects of a lymph node dissection surgery left me with a far more sensitive stomach and G/I system in general. If you need help setting up an appropriate diet, talk to your oncologist or primary care for a referral to a nutritionist which is familiar with the dietary needs of cancer survivors.
4. START EXERCISING AFTER TREATMENTS
Starting to exercise regularly two years after my cancer diagnosis changed my life. I had to go all-in on exercise not just for weight loss, but to help control pain and hormonal issues so that my body would even function correctly at all. Exercise wasn't just good for my body, it was great for my mental well-being also. Exercise gave me time to process all that I had been through, an outlet for post-cancer stress and anxiety, and gave me a feeling of accomplishment whenever I completed a workout, no matter how fast or slow. Join a gym, and get a personal trainer if you need to. Invest in yourself.
5. BE PATIENT AND NEVER STOP BELIEVING IN YOURSELF
Because of chronic post-chemo muscle fatigue issues, I couldn't exercise very hard or for very long in my initial few years after cancer. I learned to be patient and accepting, but never stopped believing in myself. My body sputtered constantly, but I kept pushing, and finally managed to get myself off the ground after two years of trying. It was only then that I could finally exercise hard enough and for long enough to start burning some serious calories, and for the pounds to start coming off. True healing can take many years. Be patient with yourself and your body.
6. FIND THE SUPPORT THAT YOU NEED
Losing weight is hard even for normal people, but even more so for cancer survivors with all of the challenges that we face in our lives. Peer or group level support is essential, especially from other cancer survivors. They just got me and knew exactly what I was facing, understanding the challenges of peripheral neuropathy and muscle fatigue that many of us face after being exposed to the toxic chemotherapy drugs. Not once did I feel even the slightest bit discouraged by my cancer survivor friends. It helped to keep me motivated even when I’d wanted to quit, and I couldn’t have been without that support.
It was a huge turnaround in 2015 and very proud moment when I finally saw 259 on the scale, marking having lost all 40 pounds that I had gained since my cancer diagnosis. I passed my annual physical with flying colors, and all of my numbers looked great. Next up for 2016? Back to 240 pounds, let’s do it!