How to Manage Body Image During Cancer Treatment
Many of us struggle with body image, even in the absence of cancer. But the changes your body will go through during treatment and recovery may cause you to look at your body in a completely new way. Sometimes, the view might be positive—I am stronger than I ever thought I could be! Other times, all these changes can make your body feel not like your own. All of this is normal! After all, your body is going through some pretty significant changes during treatment, and it’s understandable to feel upset or frustrated.
Studies show that over half of adults with cancer experience negative body image at some point during treatment and recovery. Negative body image during cancer usually stems from one of three root causes:
- Displeasure with the way your body looks, such as hair loss, weight changes, skin conditions, surgical scars, or the loss of an organ, limb, or breast.
- Frustration with a change in the way your body functions, including changes to physical movement, athletic performance, or sexual functioning.
- Psychological distress about being different from others, or fear of rejection from loved ones due to changes.
However, it’s possible to realistically acknowledge the changes you’re going through without beating yourself up. Some strategies to try:
Take control of the change
Being proactive about changes can help you feel in control and less scared. For example, if you are worried about losing your hair during chemotherapy, you may consider cutting it short or shaving it yourself before treatment begins.
Give yourself time
It may take a while to adjust to changes. You’ve lost the body you once knew, and with it, your sense of self. It’s okay if you need to take some time to grieve, process, or simply get used to your new body.
Discover your style
Educational sites like Look Good, Feel Better showcase a wide range of beauty techniques for people with cancer to help manage the appearance-related side effects of treatment. The program includes lessons on skin and nail care, cosmetics, wigs and turbans, accessories and styling. This helps you develop a style that makes you feel confident, whether that’s tying on a scarf, donning a wig that resembles your natural hair, rocking a funky neon-colored hairdo, or going without a head covering.
Change the conversation in your mind
Sometimes, we need a prompt to stay positive. Write affirmations or words of gratitude on sticky notes and put them in places where you’re typically most critical of yourself, such as the bathroom mirror. Studies show that written affirmations can serve as powerful reminders of your positive qualities during treatment.
Stay out of the comparison trap
Cancer affects each person differently, so one person may gain weight while another loses it, or one may be able to run 5Ks while the other can barely get out of bed. Remember that your experience is just that—yours.
Delegate the tasks that frustrate you
You don’t have to soldier on to prove nothing has changed. It’s okay to ask for help if you find it too exhausting to mow the lawn or carry a basket of laundry upstairs.
Consider cosmetic solutions
People who have surgery as part of their treatment may want to talk with a doctor about cosmetic solutions like reconstructive surgery or prosthetic devices. In addition to or sometimes in lieu of these medical options some patients will choose to get a tattoo of something resonant or meaningful over a scar.
Talk with others who have been through it
Having one-on-one conversations with other cancer fighters, attending support groups with people who have been in the same situation, or participating in cancer support forums online can provide understanding and hope.
Express your feelings
Some people find when they express strong feelings like fear or sadness, it becomes easier to let go of these feelings. Some accomplish this by talking to friends or family, while others may find it helpful to visit a counselor. Of course, if you prefer not to discuss your cancer with others, you should feel free not to. You can still sort out your feelings through quiet reflection or writing them down in a journal.
Be honest about your fears
Sometimes, fear of rejection can cause us to preemptively shut out the ones we love. But studies show that when couples communicate about these fears, they grow closer to one another and have higher relationship satisfaction (check out this article for some context around initiating general cancer conversation).
Treat yourself with compassion and kindness
When you are caught in negative self-talk, ask yourself: “Would I say this to a friend?” Chances are, the answer is no. Taking a moment to reflect on this can help shift your mindset toward kindness.
The content on this website is intended to provide the best possible information for you, but should not be considered—or used as a substitute for—medical advice. If you have questions about your diagnosis or treatment, please contact your health care provider(s). For questions or comments about this content, please email us at [email protected].