Woman who dropped six dress sizes after gastric bypass is fighting stigma of obesity

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A Leeds woman is calling for obesity to be recognised as a disease after she has a gastric bypass. Catherine Scott reports.

Leeds woman who struggled with her weight is calling for obesity to be recognised as a chronic disease.

Bianca Scollen, a medical secretary who lives in Leeds, struggled with her weight since she was a child.

Fifteen years ago she had a gastric bypass at the Spire Leeds Hospital where she works as a PA and is now giving back to the charity that supported her through the procedure and recovery.

At her heaviest Bianca weighed 21 stone and had a BMI (Body Mass Index) of 43 and a dress size of 26/28. She is now a healthy size 14 and her BMI has nearly halved.

She says having the surgery was the best thing she ever did and the results set her on track for a better life. Bianca, 46, who is married with a 22-year-old daughter, received much needed support at the time of her surgery from WLSinfo, a national weight loss charity with online support and physical groups throughout the country including Leeds.

After surgery she took on an active role and was appointed as a trustee. Today the charity has a membership of around 25,000 and continues to grow daily.

“Obesity is a huge problem from a personal and public health perspective,” says Bianca. “We don’t seem to be responding quickly enough as a country, as the numbers of people classified as living with obesity are increasing at an alarming rate.

“It’s particularly hard for those on a low income. Processed food is less expensive than fresh food and fast food outlets are on every street.”

WLSinfo offers support, guidance and practical help for those dealing with issues connected with being overweight, or living with obesity. It works closely with other organisations to offer services including advice on diet, exercise, diabetes and weight loss surgery. It also offers online support, forums, focus groups, Facebook groups and physical support groups.

“My gastric bypass surgery literally changed my life overnight. It opened up a whole new world for me. I wanted to give something back to the charity that had helped me through every step of the way and I still feel like it’s given me more than I could ever repay.”

At the time of her surgery, WLSinfo was the only support Bianca could find in the UK. When she joined WLSinfo, working on their helplines, it had around 100 members. Bianca soon set up a support group and held meetings in a room at Spire Leeds Hospital. It quickly outgrew its space and moved to Weetwood Hall where the monthly meetings are still going strong 14 years later. “When I attended the meetings it was the only place I felt I could be completely understood without being judged. I feel very passionately about my work with the charity, even though it can sometimes be difficult with the demands of a full-time job and a family. It’s a place for members to meet and feel included. Living with obesity can be very lonely, you can feel isolated, self-conscious, lack self-esteem and some struggle to work or even to leave the house, so it’s good to be able to talk to others who are going through similar issues and to share experiences.”

WLSinfo is also involved in lobbying to get obesity recognised as a chronic disease.

“The charity provides much needed support to help individuals not to feel stigmatised. The perception is that if you are obese it’s simply because you overeat and don’t exercise. That’s not always the case. It’s much more complex,” says Bianca.

“Obesity is about so much more than just overeating, it can be caused by so many factors such as chemicals in the brain, hormone imbalance, medication and genetics to name just a few. Some of our members are very careful about their diet and do regular exercise but are still obese. There is so much prejudice and stigma towards people living with obesity and we are working hard to raise awareness and reduce bias.

“We don’t recommend particular methods of weight management or treatments to members. We aim to offer our members access to the best evidence-based information to allow people to make the best choices for themselves. Our members provide a great resource of peer support and information for each other. Our new website, which is currently under development, will bring together a wealth of information and firsthand accounts from people living with obesity.”

Professor Peter Lodge, consultant hepatobiliary and weight loss surgeon at Spire Leeds Hospital, said: “Bianca exemplifies how weight loss surgery can revolutionise life.”