What is body image?
For cancer patients, a change in self-image can be triggered by a number of factors and have damaging side effects, including depression, insomnia and social isolation. Cancer and its treatment affect each patient differently, and can have many physical impacts, including:
- Weight loss or weight gain
- Thinning or loss of hair
- Blotchy skin, rashes, soft nails or other changes to skin tone or nails
- Loss of limbs, organs or breasts, especially from surgical interventions
- Posture changes, such as spinal curvature
- Changes in physical performance/abilities
- Loss of bodily functions, such as incontinence or impotence
- Swelling, especially in the limbs
Any of these changes can greatly affect how patients feel about themselves, leading to a change in self-image and increasing the risk of other detrimental side effects like anxiety and depression. These psychological challenges can shake patients’ resolve, which is essential to maintaining the stamina and positive attitude that can serve as tools in the fight against cancer. Self-image often has little to do with how others actually view the person. It is a personal experience, and may be managed with interventions designed to boost self-confidence.
How likely are cancer patients to experience body image issues?
Body image affects cancer patients of all ages, demographics and cancer types, according to an analysis of studies by the American Cancer Society. The analysis concluded that prostate cancer survivors were more likely to have positive body images than men with other types of cancer. For women, those with a history of cancer recurrence, multiple cancers or metastatic cancer were more apt to express negative body images.
How can integrative care help?
Because body image is an emotional reaction to physical changes, mind-body therapists are well-equipped with a variety of tools to help. One of the most common ways to manage a poor self-image is through talk therapy—to acknowledge it, and address it head on with the guidance of a trained professional. Therapeutic counseling sessions are also available to couples and families.
The mind-body therapists at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) may also recommend image enhancement services, which offer spa and salon services to help patients look and feel their best. On-site services include:
- Hair care, including haircuts, colors and wig trims or shapings
- Nail care options, such as manicures, pedicures and waxes
- Hats, wigs, scarves, soft head coverings and other accessories
- Women’s health products, including for skincare
- Cosmetic image support, to help patients prepare for potential changes, such as hair loss or weight gain
- Classes and seminars on image-enhancement techniques and on such topics as the connection between looking good and feeling better
Body image concerns before and after cancer-related treatment can be supported by the oncology rehabilitation team. A team of physical and occupational therapists can reduce scarring, support the management of weight loss and weight gain, and work to modify any postural changes that may have occurred through education, exercise and manual therapies. Following surgery that may have led to physical changes, the team can coordinate directly with the surgical care team to recommend a selection of breast forms, breast prosthetics and post-surgical bras. Additionally, a team of certified lymphedema
therapists, who are experts in managing edema, can reduce swelling changes through education, manual therapies and compression recommendations.