Eating disorders and cancer

Last Modified: September 14, 2003

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Question

Dear OncoLink "Ask The Experts,"
I am recovering from Bulimia and Anorexia and am worried that I have caused damage to my throat. Is it possible to develop cancer from prolonged purging?  

Answer

Katrina Claghorn, MS, RD, Registered Dietitian at the Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania, responds:

You are to be commended for dealing with your eating disorder (ED). We don't know if persons with a history of bulimia are at greater risk of developing a cancer of the head or neck. There have been no studies that I could find that examined the relationship between bulimia and head or neck cancer incidence. There have been a couple of case reports of patients with ED who developed squamous cell carcinoma of the esophagus (1)(2).

We do know that people who experience gastric reflux may be at greater risk of developing esophageal cancer. This is due to the exposure of the surface of the esophagus with acidic stomach contents.

To answer your question, there is no concrete evidence that a history of bulimia increases the chances of having a head or neck cancer. However, if experiencing unusual pains in the throat of esophagus, or difficulty swallowing it would be wise to have the problems assessed.

  1. Buyse S, Nahon S, Tuszynski T, Delas N. Bulimia nervosa as a risk factor for squamous cell carcinoma of the esophagus? (letter to the editor). American Journal of Gastroenterology. 2002; 6:1442-1443
  2. Dessureault S, Coppola D, Weitzner M, Powers P, Karl RC. Barrett's esophagus and squamous cell carcinoma in a patient with psychogenic vomiting. Int J Gastrointest Cancer. 2002;32(1):57-61.