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Cancer: An Often Overlooked Emotional Catalyst for Eating Disorders

Welcome, October! With the changing leaves comes the wearing of scarves and sweaters, pumpkin spice lattes at your favorite coffee shop, mid-term exams, and the anticipation of the holiday season.

I absolutely love autumn for all of these reasons, as well as a more serious one:  October is Breast Cancer Awareness month.  My mother has been a breast cancer survivor for over a decade now.  I could not be more overjoyed and grateful that my mother beat this horrible disease.

You may be wondering however: what does this have to do with women and eating disorders, body image issues, and the work that Timberline Knolls does?  Our CEO and Medical Director recently wrote a blog on the importance of family in the recovery process: how family dynamics, illnesses and traumatic experiences can have a positive or negative impact on the individual and family’s healing.

Each October, I thank God for the gift of my mother’s survival, but I also reflect on the trigger that her breast cancer diagnosis was for the development of an eating disorder.  At age 12, my family received the news of my mother’s illness. She promptly began chemotherapy treatments, had a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, and altogether disappeared from my life as a parental figure.  At far too early an age, and in the perilous world of classical ballet, I was forced to raise myself, learn how to “cope,” and consequently came to many disastrous conclusions about what it meant to be worth something, beautiful, and successful.  By the time my mother had reached a certain level of recovery a few years later, I was deep in my eating disordered behaviors and in desperate need of love and proper treatment.

Cancer not only caused my mother to fight for her life, but also caused despair, isolation and disorder throughout our family.

Any family that has been affected by a serious illness such as cancer knows its power to damage families, relationships, and any sense of hope.  However, I feel blessed that breast cancer did not take my dear mother, did not have victory in our family – neither did the eating disorder that grew out of that tumultuous period.  No – by the grace of God, support of family and excellent treatment professionals, both my mother and I fought our respective battles and won.  While different pathologies, the emotional journeys were similar, and I’m blessed to have witnessed my mother’s courage in her fight, as it inspired my own.

In fact, I can say “thank you,” now, to breast cancer.  I can “Consider it pure joy…whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” James 1:2-4.  I watched my mother grow in faith, in perseverance, and emerge from her illness victorious.  I saw her go on to become the Pastor of Congregational Care at our church, spending hours upon hours coordinating hospital visits, praying with women and families who were dealing with cancer diagnoses, and becoming a voice and listening ear for those struggling with this terrible disease.

She inspired me in my own advocacy, and after recovering from an eating disorder I knew what good could come out of strife and struggle: help, comfort, hope – being a voice for others going through the same thing.

This October, we remember the mothers, the grandmothers, the aunts, sisters, daughters that have fought breast cancer.  We celebrate the great advances that have been made in education and awareness.

I believe that in the eating disorders community, we can see the success of the Breast Cancer movement as a beacon of hope for increased recognition and importance of women’s health issues. This past weekend I had the honor of telling my story as the Speaker for the Chicago NEDA Walk. There were almost 300 walkers! NEDA CEO Lyn Grefe, who was in attendance, said they expect a thousand walkers in New York City next weekend. Walks for eating disorder awareness are increasing around the country, numbers of participants are up, and advocates are eager for community, healing, and hope. It is not just ED survivors now who come out to these events. They are increasingly joined by their families, those who supported them in recovery, the professionals who treated them, and the friends they inspired with their journeys.

Take time this month to appreciate and thank God for the women he has placed in your life. Take time to reflect upon the battles that you have faced, and what greater purpose they will serve.  Romans 8:28 says that “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”  Even the greatest of pain can be used for good.  Rejoice in the choice that we have to transform the inevitable sorrows of this life into eternal joy and perpetual peace.  Happy October!

About Kirsten Haglund

“Since my own recovery, I am passionate about educating and empowering women to get the care they need to live amazing, productive and healthy lives,” said Haglund. “I see the same compassion and desire in the Timberline Knolls team and look forward to being a part of this work of restoring women to health.”

Haglund will continue to work as an advocate for greater awareness of eating disorders and resources for care. Since she won the crown of Miss America 2008, she has spoken on more than 20 college campuses, worked with youth and church groups domestically and abroad, lobbied Congress with the Eating Disorders Coalition, and started her own non-profit, the Kirsten Haglund Foundation, to raise funds and assist families financially in seeking treatment for eating disorders.

View all posts by Kirsten Haglund