Getting Personal: Lessons About GERD, Cancer, HAES, Bulima & Food Restriction

Read this if you are overweight. And read this if you purge through vomiting. Read this if you restrict your intake to less than you know your body needs. And read this if you've been told you have reflux, GERD or Barrett's esophagus.

Stomach--cow, not human, though!
I was recently contacted by a blogger colleague, aware of my Health At Every Size (HAES) philosophy from my blog writings. She was interested in referring a client for Medical Nutrition Therapy for reflux, with a history of Barrett's esophagus. For those of you not in the know, reflux, GERD or gastroesophageal reflux disease, is a condition where acid from the stomach comes up into the esophagus—that tube connecting your throat and your stomach—where it's not meant to be. 

Over time, that stomach acid starts to change the lining of the esophagus and cause inflammation, heartburn and discomfort. For about 5-15% of sufferers, the cells lining the esophagus begin to change, resulting in a condition called Barrett's esophagus. Barrett's esophagus can be well controlled with diet and medication, but in some cases progresses to esophageal cancer. By the time cancer is diagnosed in those patients, the cancer has invaded the area making the prognosis far from great.

My mother was diagnosed with adenocarcinoma—a cancer of the esophagus.

Now, back to the referrer. She wanted to be sure that I wouldn't focus on the client’s weight; because that's what people tend to do—just focus on the weight. What my fellow blogger was unaware of was that I was in the midst of struggling with the horrific consequences of this very common symptom, reflux, which ultimately led to cancer of the esophagus, a potentially preventable disease. And I am painfully aware of all the risk factors that contribute to esophageal cancer—including obesity. 

For most of my years, my mother popped Rolaids and Tums, those chewable antacids, like they were candy. She didn't binge, but she ate compulsively. She wasn't a drinker or a smoker—alcohol and smoking also add to the risk—but she couldn't part with her coffee which like most things acidic make things worse. And she was obese, a major risk factor for reflux. In fact, after her gastric bypass surgery, her reflux disappeared. For 8 years, in fact, she experienced little or no reflux. But it was too late; the damage was done.

Now if you're thinking you're not the intended target for this post, don't stop reading! My story, unfortunately, impacts the purgers among you as well as those dreadfully afraid to eat. So please keep reading.

While the verdict isn't in yet, there appears to be an increased risk of reflux, Barrett's esophagus and cancer, based on a study of studies, a meta analysis, on bulimics. This should come as no surprise, as acid going where it's not meant to go is what causes the problem. Fear may not drive you to change your behavior. But perhaps you haven't considered your risk of getting a potentially fatal cancer, right up there with dental issues and of course, sudden death, all consequences that you can prevent.

So where do you restrictors fit into this article?

Let me enlighten you a bit more about the treatment for esophageal cancer. The best hope for survival is to have surgery, after aggressive chemo and radiation. If you're a candidate for surgery, you're in luck. Well, sort of. The surgery requires removal of most or all of your esophagus and creation of a new pseudo-esophagus from your stomach. It's a seriously risky surgery, but can be done well by top surgeons. We were fortunate, and in fact, her past gastric bypass likely aided the situation, making it easier to use her already bypassed stomach remnant.

If you've long struggled with your weight—like my mother did—being told you have to take in many hundreds of calories a day doesn't sit too well. So any opportunity to stop the tube feeding (from which the bulk of nourishment comes during the initial and very critical weeks of healing), is taken. 

Yes, she restricted. The lack of significant weight loss convinced her that there was no issue with her minimal nourishment. Never mind that she became lethargic, spending most of her days in bed, barely able to walk. Or that she became depressed, or that her thinking was far from clear. (Yes, sometimes it's difficult to see the damage from restricting as it's happening.)

That's the state she was in this weekend when I visited. She had convinced the doctors by telephone that she was eating fine, and they were even considering removing her feeding tube tomorrow. 

Except that now she was readmitted and has a blood clot in her lung. I can't say why, these things do happen, but laying in bed fatigued from poor intake no doubt didn't help.

Back to HAES and my fellow blogger.

I fully understand the experience of the obese, being told that their weight is the cause of all evils—even the common cold! As an RD, I would never just focus on weight loss for someone with GERD. Rather, I would address symptom management with volume changes, and reduce acidic foods that aggravate the inflammation. I'd guide the patient on foods and meal content that might be contributing to the reflux.

But would I avoid discussion of weight loss in an obese patient, if their eating were excessive for their need, if they had been gaining weight? Or for that matter, if portion adjustments could be made, reducing both calories and stomach volume that would improve acid reflux, and also result in weight loss? Studies show an association, and that's not to say that all obese people need to lose weight. I get it.

That said, for those with GERD, losing weight tends to improve symptoms, and gaining weight tends to worsen them in obese individuals, especially in those with intra-abdominal obesity.  

Thanks for reading. Please do me a favor and share this with someone you know whose's at risk. Tweet it, blog about it, Facebook 'like' it or simply talk about it.
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