A note from the editor: This post details disordered eating behaviour, and may be triggering for some readers.
Forty-eight hours after fashion and entertainment journalist Elle Halliwell heard the words, “You’ve got leukaemia”, she received more life-changing news: she was four weeks pregnant with her first child. In the weeks that followed, The Daily Telegraph reporter made a choice that attracted national headlines. She chose to delay life-saving cancer treatment in order to continue the pregnancy and give birth to her unborn son.
Tor Felix Biasotto was born in December 2016, at a healthy 3.1kg.
Eighteen months on Elle, too, is doing well – the treatment has put her on the road to recovery. But as the Sydney woman told Mia Freedman on Mamamia‘s No Filter podcast, after her diagnosis, the anxiety she had lived with for years had a new target: her health.
“The Prof had assured me my illness had not been caused by my lifestyle, and was simply an unfortunate cellular fuck up — but it didn’t stop me questioning my past and present choices, and wondering if there was something I’d done that had triggered my sickness.” – Elle Halliwell, A Mother’s Choice.
MIA: You write in your book [A Mother’s Choice] about almost developing borderline orthorexia, in terms of how you became quickly really obsessed with what you were putting into your body. How did that sort of develop and play out for you?
ELLE: Well, I think if I wasn’t pregnant I probably wouldn’t have had that so much. But all I could think of was, ‘Oh my God. If I’m going to have a baby, I want him to be healthy.’ Like I said, ‘It’s too late for me to learn from any mistakes that I’ve made, so I’m going to give this kid the best start in life.’ And so I just became quite obsessive with what what I cooked, with things that I even touched.
MIA: You talked about how you became fearful of non-stick pans and in restaurants you wouldn’t want anything put in a plastic container, and you went into you wanted to go and inspect the saucepans in some restaurants you went into. When I was reading that I thought, firstly, that makes a lot of sense and, secondly, it’s about control, surely? It’s like, ‘So many things out of control are happening in my body, I can control something.’
ELLE: Exactly, yes. It’s so true. And that was a great distraction from the bigger issues. You know if I could just make sure that I lived my day not eating anything that had chemicals or preservatives and things like that, then that would be a win for me that day. But I think it eventually got to the point where I’d start to work myself up about it and so I realised that the stress that I put myself under and all of these extra decisions that I had to make probably wasn’t great for my cortisol levels.
MIA: So then you start going, ‘I’m so worried about my cancer that I’m going to give myself more cancer by being so stressed about my cancer.’
ELLE: That’s right. That’s what it felt like. Especially after I had Tor – and I still have this – my brain is torn between two things, like ‘YOLO you only live once, have the extra wine’ and ‘Hang on you’ve got cancer. Yes there’s [antioxidant] resveratrol in there, but you should stop with alcohol and literally go and sit on a mountain and meditate for the rest of your life.’
So it’s like there’s always a bit of a war going on in my head with every choice I make.
MIA: Has it made you look at your work differently?
ELLE: Oh yes very much so… I think it’s the great thing about myself now is that I feel more like I’ve got a purpose. A) Being a mum which has given me a lot of purpose. But I’ve also started studying naturopathy because I wanted to make sure that I can give him the best diet and the best lifestyle. I just don’t want the same thing to happen to him, you know, whether it’s the same thing or not. [But] I don’t want to project all my insecurities on him.
MIA: But you know every mother does to some extent, but I know what you mean. Therapy will be good for that.
Listen to the full episode of No Filter above or subscribe here.
If you or a loved one is struggling with disordered eating, help is available at The Butterfly Foundation.