Breast Cancer + Eating Disorders: My Journey of Survival
My name is Leah Wypych and I am the Chair of the Board of Directors for The Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness.
As many know, and some may assume, I am in recovery from my eating disorder. Many also assume this is the reason for my drive and passion to help anyone struggling with an eating disorder. They are mostly accurate.
At age 32, I was diagnosed with stage III-B breast cancer. The biggest lump in my breast was about the size of a golf ball and the cancer spread to my lymph nodes. The cancer was aggressive and severe. I was the youngest person in every doctor’s office and chemotherapy room.
My breast cancer journey is relatable; too many of us know someone who has had breast cancer – or have been through this fight ourselves. I want to share with you my breast cancer experience, as it compares to my eating disorder experience.
As soon as I received my breast cancer diagnosis, my loved ones were at my side. But, when I finally shared with my family and friends I had an eating disorder, I received confused looks and questions on basic information (when, where, how, why). At that time, it was difficult for me to find other people who had experienced an eating disorder and were willing to discuss it openly. I felt alone.
Luckily, throughout my cancer journey, I had some of the most experienced medical professionals available. For me, cancer recovery began with chemotherapy, then a bilateral mastectomy, followed by radiation, and unfortunately, unexpected reconstructive surgeries – the whole “shebang” of treatment. I became a 9-year survivor in July 2020.
There are different “stages” to breast cancer treatment, just as there are levels of care for eating disorder treatment. During my cancer treatments, my insurance company paid for every doctor’s appointment, scan, chemotherapy appointment, surgery, etc. without blinking an eye. But during many people’s eating disorder treatment, many insurance companies claim, “The patient’s labs are stable, and therefore, they will not continue at this level of care.” It can be an ongoing battle to have mental healthcare covered by insurance. This ill-informed method does not allow for patients, with their treatment teams, to truly work on the underlying causes or issues related to eating disorders. Under this method, patients’ health is reduced simply to weight; to some number on a scale.
Imagine if during my cancer treatment, my insurance company said, “Well, surgery cut out the cancer, so she doesn’t really need radiation!” As many of us who have been affected by cancer know – if the course of care isn’t fully completed, the disease can come back with a vengeance. Eating disorders are no different.
Both cancer and eating disorders KILL. Both have an incredibly high mortality rate without the proper care. But, with the appropriate treatment and support, not only can you survive, but you can THRIVE.
The average person knows very little about eating disorders, their impact on the community and the economy, which treatment options may be available, or how to best support a loved one experiencing an eating disorder. It was difficult for me to find other people who had experienced an eating disorder and were willing to discuss it openly.
Here’s the thing; I am not looking for your sympathy. I’m humbly asking for your help supporting others who are walking the path to recovery from their eating disorder. While there are (thankfully!) necessary resources and support for people like me during their fight with breast cancer, support and resources for individuals living with eating disorders is often inaccessible. People suffering from mental illness deserve the same care and support I received during my battle with breast cancer!
My journey as both a breast cancer survivor and as someone in recovery from my eating disorder inspired me to become active in the eating disorder community and with The Alliance. Just like my family understood my cancer diagnosis and supported me through my recovery, I wanted the same support system during my eating disorder recovery. I wanted that same compassion, care, love, and understanding. Through The Alliance, I and countless others have been given these gifts.
Luckily, I have come to find the support I needed (and deserved) during my eating disorder recovery through the help of The Alliance and other Alliance Survivors.
Please help me make significant change in the prevention and treatment of eating disorders. By uniting with The Alliance, we can work to ensure not one more life is taken too soon by this insidious disease.
Leah Wypych, MPA, has always always had a goal to help the community, particularly children and their families. She is currently the Marketing Director at ViaMar Health, an eating disorder program in West Palm Beach, Florida. Leah is proud to have been a part of The Alliance family since 2011. Since joining the Alliance family, Leah has advocated for eating disorder legislation in Washington D.C. every year and diligently promoted eating disorder awareness through every avenue possible.