Those Extra Pounds: Hard to Avoid... and a Challenge to Shed

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • The vast majority of women diagnosed with breast cancer will battle weight gain sometime during the treatment process. How to deal with your battle of the bulge: both physically, and emotionally.

    It’s just not fair, is it?


    Here you are, dealing with burns from radiation, sores from chemo, a bald head, fatigue from work + running to the doctor’s + trying to keep things together at home – oh, and did I mention a life-threatening illness? – and you’re gaining weight. Steadily.


    You’d think that the stress and worry of cancer treatment might cause you to actually shed a few pounds, right? Unfortunately, for many of us it’s the opposite: we gain a few pounds. Then a few more.


    What’s up with that?


    Fatigue makes exercise difficult. You’re worried, so you eat. Chemo throws you into menopause, and your metabolism goes south. The drugs promote water retention. All of the above.


    Whatever’s caused you to gain weight, now’s not the time to take a guilt trip. Having cancer is tough; perhaps one of the toughest things you’ll ever do in your life. If you’ve eaten too much and haven’t exercised enough, cut yourself some slack. 


    What’s done is done – which doesn’t mean you can’t try to undo it.


    First, try to assess just what circumstance or behavior is responsible for those extra pounds. 


    Was it a combination of eating too much/eating junk food, and not exercising enough? Then going forward, try to mend your ways. It’s tempting to continue unhealthy eating behavior; after all, the ultimate comfort situation when you’re in a foul mood is a bag of chips and a chick flick on TV, right? But there’s no easy way around it: if you want to shed weight, you have to consume fewer (and/or burn more) calories. There’s no silver bullet here, ladies: calories in, calories out.


    If you’re in the midst of treatment, start slowly. When you want to plop down on the couch with a bowl of ice cream, don’t let yourself. Really. DO NOT open the freezer door. 


    Instead, put on comfortable shoes, and just before heading out the door, grab a piece of fruit. I’ve been loving the tiny, ultra-sweet clementines at my supermarket lately. To say nothing of the Champagne mangoes – a bright gold, juicy, ridiculously delicious taste of the Tropics.


    Walk around the block. Eat your fruit. Repeat. The fresh air should invigorate you, while the fruit should quell that urge to eat something sugary. 


    OK, there’ll still be times when you think the heck with it, and you have that bowl of ice cream in front of the TV. And that’s OK, too. So long as you understand that this is a special treat (not an everyday occurrence); and the brisk walks are more frequent than the bouts of couch potato-ing, you’ll gradually – ever-so-gradually – shed weight.


    Now obviously, if treatment has really debilitated you, you might not be able to do much more than struggle from bedroom to kitchen to living room and back. And you might be in a situation where chemo has done such a number on you, you’re trying to maintain weight – not lose it. 


    But if weight gain is becoming a problem, when the urge to eat hits you, choose something healthy. Looking for sweets? Choose fruit, low-fat yogurt, or a low-fat smoothie. Need something salty/crunchy? Reduced-fat, high-fiber crackers (e.g., Triscuits) are a great substitute for potato chips – as are kale chips, fresh kale tossed with olive oil and baked in a 250°F oven for about an hour, until crisp. 


    What about if you’ve finished treatment, are feeling fine, exercising, eating right – and gaining weight?


    Frustrating, huh?


    Many women taking tamoxifen as part of long-term hormone therapy swear it promotes weight gain. Oncologists are just as certain that it doesn’t. Know what? It really doesn’t matter who’s right here; the fact remains, many women taking tamoxifen gain weight. 


    Ditto women taking an aromatase inhibitor (AI). Those 5 to 10 years of hormone therapy can make you feel like the little boy with his finger in the dike – you’re trying to keep the weight off, but it’s just not working.


    Women taking an AI have already been through menopause. And some women go through menopause while taking tamoxifen. Either way, if you’re newly menopausal, you’ll almost certainly gain weight. Not necessarily because you’re eating poorly, or not exercising enough; but simply because your metabolism has slowed down.


    The calories in/calories out equation that worked just fine prior to menopause won’t work anymore. Discouraging though it is, you have to consume fewer calories – and burn more – than you used to. That means eating less, exercising more.


    Hey, no one said this was going to be easy. Sometimes the truth hurts. 


    I found myself at a turning point midway through my AI treatment. I’d gained 20 pounds, hated the way I looked, didn’t feel like exercising more, and was reluctant to eat less.


    So I had a heart-to-heart with myself. Would I rather be overweight, with the physical discomfort and emotional anxiety that brings? Or was I willing to make a change: to challenge myself to eat less and exercise more?


    I dragged myself, kicking and screaming, to the “eat less/exercise more” side. Went on the South Beach diet – and lost 5 pounds. Then, more slowly, another 5. Then another 3 pounds.


    I never did lose those 20 pounds, but eventually lost about 15; and have maintained my weight, more or less, ever since.


    Yes, it’s still a constant challenge. Just last week, I had to put the remaining Easter candy up high in the back of the cupboard, so I couldn’t easily grab it. But I have no desire to go backwards – to regain that cancer treatment weight.


    My hair’s grown back, and the hot flashes have disappeared; aside from the usual aches and pains of aging, I’m back to myself. And I intend to stay there; weight gain, with its built-in reminder of cancer, is one thing I’ll avoid – no matter how much mental and physical effort it takes. 


    Are you ready to lose those cancer pounds? May is a wonderful month for getting outside: for taking brisk walks, for browsing farmers’ markets for wonderful fresh vegetables and berries. Take advantage of the season. Before you know it, your new food and exercise regimen will have become a habit. A good one.


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Published On: April 29, 2013