Bulimia and Cancer: What are the Connections?

Author | Danielle Mauldin
Reviewed By | Bridget Clerkin

5 sources cited

Eating disorder resources

Bulimia nervosa (BN) is a serious mental health condition that can contribute to a number of consequences on someone’s physical and emotional well-being. And unfortunately, some studies have shown that one of the physical effects of BN is a higher risk of developing esophageal cancer.

Research into the connection between the two conditions is still ongoing, and some unknowns about the specifics remain. However, what is known is that bulimia nervosa may be an important risk factor for esophageal cancer and numerous other health issues connected to the throat.

Does Bulimia Nervosa Cause Cancer?

Bulimia nervosa may not be a direct cause of cancer, but the additional stress it puts on the body—particularly that caused by self-induced vomiting—could make the body more vulnerable to developing cancerous cells. When found in the lining of the throat, the condition is called squamous cell carcinoma.

Bulimia can make the body more vulnerable to developing cancer.

The repeated presence of stomach acid in the throat can lead to microtrauma in the esophageal mucosa, or essentially tiny tears and other forms of cellular damage. This could eventually lead to issues like gastroesophageal reflux disease, which can further hurt the throat, and chronic physical damage. Similar types of damage have been previously associated with esophageal cancer.

Eating Disorders and Cancer

For people struggling with eating disorders of all types, there are also some factors that may lead to a higher risk of developing cancer.

People with eating disorders tend to be susceptible to substance use disorders, notably those related to smoking and alcohol. These are both noted contributors to cancerous cellular growth. [1]

Eating disorders also tend to lead to chronic nutritional deficiencies, and this has similarly been linked to the development of unhealthy cells or difficulty overcoming illnesses. 

Shared Risk Factors for Eating Disorders and Cancer

One study found a connection between disordered eating behavior and cancer that was strikingly high, with people who were previously hospitalized with an eating disorder having a six-fold increased risk of developing esophageal cancer. [1] However, researchers involved in the study noted some significant limitations of the findings, including a large number of overlapping risk factors between people with eating disorders and people who develop this form of cancer.

Those hospitalized with an eating disorder are 6x more likely to develop esophageal cancer. [1]

Indeed, the study posited that it was these shared risk factors that ultimately posed the greatest risk for people with BN going on to develop esophageal cancer, as opposed to the damage caused to esophageal tissue.

Are People in Recovery at Risk?

It’s difficult to estimate how long someone who has experienced bulimia nervosa or other eating disorders remains at an increased risk for developing esophageal cancer. The outcome depends on incalculable factors, from someone’s genetics and personal health history to the severity of their condition and other risk factors they may experience.

A Case Study

One case study found a woman developed esophageal cancer at 27 years old, nearly 10 years after her struggle with bulimia nervosa. [2] Again, however, lines get blurred when more details are considered. The patient, in this case, had also been a smoker for nearly 7 years and quit only shortly before her cancer diagnosis.

It may be so that chronic bulimia or chronic eating disorders—the terms used to describe more severe cases that last a year or longer—lead to a higher risk of developing cancer later on due to the increased time for microtrauma and severe malnutrition to develop.

Still, lacking further research, it’s unwise and inadvisable to make too many assumptions about why or how BN and other eating disorders can present a greater cancer risk.

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Other Health Risks Associated With Bulimia

Unfortunately, esophageal cancer isn’t the only major health risk presented by BN. The condition has been linked to a number of symptoms and potential health consequences, including: [3]

  • Heart failure
  • Organ damage
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Dry skin
  • Yellowing skin
  • Dry and brittle nails
  • Dental problems
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Dizziness
  • Stomach cramps
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Thinning hair
  • Muscle weakness
  • Poor wound healing
  • Weakened immune system

As BN primarily impacts the digestive system and causes nutritional imbalances in the body, this can cause a cascade of symptoms, which can lead to numerous health issues.

One of the biggest dangers of bulimia nervosa is the potential for a serious electrolyte balance, which can lead to death without any obvious warning signs. Similarly, BN can cause sudden cardiac arrest, which is often also deadly.

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When to Get Help for Bulimia Nervosa

If you or a loved one are struggling with bulimia nervosa, it’s important to seek out help as soon as possible. By its very nature, the condition can make a significant impact on your physical and mental health, as well as your quality of life. 

If you’re not sure where to look for help, you can reach out to your physician or a mental health therapist. These trained professionals will be able to offer you advice about the best next steps and point you in the direction of qualified programs. A number of eating disorder hotlines also exist to help people access help and additional resources about these conditions.

Bulimia nervosa is a dangerous and potentially deadly condition, but it doesn’t have to be your destiny. Seeking out treatment can help you get on the path toward a sustained recovery and a happier and healthier future.

Within Health offers personalized remote eating disorder treatment backed by years of experience.

Within’s IOP and PHP programs offer meal kit deliveries, a numberless scale, a convenient app to attend therapy sessions and view your schedule, and so much more.

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  1. Brewster DH, Nowell SL, & Clark DN. (2015). Risk of Oesophageal Cancer Among Patients Previously Hospitalised with Eating Disorder. Cancer Epidemiology; 39(3):313–320. 
  2. Shinohara ET, Swisher-McClure S, Husson M, Sun W, & Metz JM. (2007). Esophageal Cancer in a Young Woman With Bulimia Nervosa: A Case Report. Journal of Medical Case Reports; 1:160.
  3. Bulimia Nervosa. (2018, February 22). National Eating Disorders Association. Retrieved September 13, 2022.

Last Update | 03 - 6 - 2023

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