After overcoming anorexia in early life to become a mother-of-four, Helen McGonagle suffered breast cancer. Dealing with weight issues during her recovery and after the pregnancies, she explains how she has now learned to appreciate her body
In this part of the world, women and men of all ages seem to be at odds with their looks. Whether it is down to peer pressure, social media or the constant deluge of celebrity images ‘showcasing their perfect body’, most of us never cease to criticise ourselves.
Helen McGonagle can relate to this as it has taken her 55 years to finally appreciate the body she was born with and give it thanks for all that it has seen her through. This gratitude, she says, is long overdue as after putting it through a decade of anorexia, then bearing four children and enduring breast cancer, her body really deserves some credit.
“I put myself through a tough time growing up as I was really unhappy about myself,” she says. “I had very little self-confidence and having done badly in my entrance exams to secondary school — which was a boarding school that streamed all classes — I found myself in the lowest stream and was bored stiff. Then after first year, I moved up to the highest stream and was, of course, way behind everyone else.
“I also found communal living very difficult and really hated the boarding aspect as we had no freedom, it was like being in a prison.” It was during this time in boarding school that the Cork woman began having issues with her body and says it got worse as the years went by.
“I loved to cook and bake and one day, a friend said that I should eat less cake — and from that moment on, I vowed to lose weight and spent any free time we had running and skipping to try and shed some weight,” she says. “I was always cold and dreaded mealtimes and the whole thing continued from there. I never felt good enough or that I had lost enough and was always thinking that everything would be fine if only I could lose a bit more weight.
"The funny thing is that I wanted to fit into drainpipe jeans, which were the fashion at the time, but when I did, they looked awful on me because I was too thin. When I look back at the photos my parents had of me from that period, I looked dreadful, my hair fell out on one side and I started growing fuzz on my face — I am still quite traumatised by the memories. I remember catching a relative unawares one day and they were crying — when I asked what was wrong, they said they were so worried about me and didn’t want me to die.
“I didn’t have any treatment and in hindsight I think it would have helped, but a move to day school, living back home again and getting fantastic support from my parents helped me on the road to recovery.”
But developing a healthy relationship with food and her body took a long time and Helen, who is married to Joe, says she was almost finished college by the time she began to feel more secure in her own skin.
“For years, I had no confidence in my ability to make decisions and was ashamed of my inability to cope,” she says. “Going to university and having a fresh start where nobody knew me was my turning point. I threw myself into university clubs — swimming and lifesaving in particular — and swam on the inter varsity team. I trained as a lifeguard and worked in the college pool on evenings and weekends and also got involved in student union politics — so I remade myself effectively.
“It took me about eight years to recover and it wasn’t until my fourth year in college that I could eat a sandwich made by someone else as I was always worried that it might have butter or mayonnaise or something else in it that I hadn’t allowed myself to eat.
“But even then, I wouldn’t say that I was ‘cured’ as I don’t think I would ever consider myself to be completely cured of anorexia as my default reaction to difficult times is to limit my food intake, so that is something I really need to watch out for.” The mother-of-four says that when she was pregnant, she fell back into the habit of watching her weight and trying to lose the extra pregnancy pounds after they were born.
“I was constantly on a diet and not eating things so I could stay in control,” she says. “Then, five years ago, I went for my first routine mammogram and was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was such a shock as I had no idea that there was anything wrong. In fact, I nearly didn’t go for the check as I was really busy at the time and thought there was no point — I felt it would be a waste of time because everything was fine, but it wasn’t.
“I was diagnosed with cancer in the left breast and told that I would need a lumpectomy and treatment. I couldn’t believe it as it was totally unexpected. I had surgery in December 2017, then chemotherapy between January and March of 2018 and radiotherapy in May and June 2018. After that, I started hormone treatment (tamoxifen) in August of the same year and am still on it until August 2023.
“I was so lucky that it was spotted as I was told that it could have been at least two years before any lump appeared, so I wouldn’t have noticed it as it was quite deep — but thankfully it hadn’t spread because it was caught so early.
“All in all, it was a tough time, but I had a lot of support from my family and friends who couldn’t have been more caring and looked after me very well. I also got amazing counselling from Cork ARC when I was feeling down as it was a really safe place to be.
“And I listened to hundreds of audiobooks — I’m a big reader but sometimes during chemo, I didn’t have the energy to even hold a book, so the audio versions from BorrowBox were life savers.” Having gone through both anorexia and cancer, Helen, who is a music librarian and doctoral researcher, says she should have been grateful to have survived, but it wasn’t long before she began focusing on, what she perceived to be, negative aspects of her body.
“Along with everything else, the treatment caused me to put on weight and before I knew it, I was back on the merry-go-round of constantly worrying about what I was eating, never enjoying food, always exercising and blaming myself for not being able to lose the weight,” she says.
“I put on 4kg when I had the treatment and lost most of it so I am now a size 10 to 12. I had got to a place where I didn’t think I was overweight but recently, I asked for a referral for anti-inflammatory injections to treat joint pain and was shocked to be told that, although I was within ‘normal parameters’, I would need to lose weight — to return to what I was before my cancer treatment — before I could be considered for it.
“I’m 68kg and almost 5ft 5in, so I really don’t think that was a helpful comment at all and if I had been told this years ago when I was having a hard time with anorexia, it could have been so damaging — as it was, I was still quite affected by it. I was appalled to be honest.”
This moment was quite defining for Helen who realised that she needed to stop giving her body ‘a hard time’. “I was at a summer solstice event this year and we were asked to write down something we would like to give up,” she says. “When I got the piece of paper, I wrote that I wanted to give up hating my body and instead start thanking it for all it has done for me. It has been through the mill with anorexia and breast cancer and given me four children — it’s time now to thank it.
“So last weekend, I decided to brave all and went onto the beach in a bikini — it was an incredible feeling. I always see people doing this abroad without any issue at all, so I decided to do the same and it felt fantastic.
“Lots of the advice after any cancer treatment is to lose weight, eat a healthy diet, do lots of exercise, drink little or no alcohol and so on. I was aware about the danger of slipping into obsessive behaviour again and I really didn’t want to. So I have begun to examine my life, how I had lived it up to now and how I want to live the ‘second half’.
“I realised that I wanted to be fit and healthy and move away from constantly thinking that all would be well if I could just lose a couple of pounds. Through counselling and coaching I developed a vision for the future I would love, including a recognition of all that my body has been through from the anorexia, carrying and giving birth to four children and then breast cancer. Now is time to acknowledge all my body has coped with and survived — it’s time to stop punishing it.
“I don’t want to go to my grave on a diet, so I think if I could advise anything to others, I would say that we need to think about how amazing our bodies are and realise that health is about far more than weight and body shape.”
If you are affected by the issues in this article see bodywhys.ie