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Taking control of your body image after cancer

Self image
More than half of all cancer patients struggle with body image at some point in their cancer journey.

How you see and feel about your body influences many aspects of your life: your mental health, your physical health, how you take care of yourself, your level of confidence and how you interact with and relate to other people.

Cancer and its treatment often change the body and how it functions. Not surprisingly, more than half of all cancer patients struggle with body image at some point in their cancer journey, according to one study. Patients also reported a host of emotional side effects, including:

  • Loss of confidence in their body and its abilities
  • The belief that their body has “let them down”
  • The sense that their body is weak or vulnerable

Other emotional side effects include depression, anxiety, feelings of isolation, loss of intimacy and overall difficulty getting back to their normal lives.

Common body changes

Cancer and its treatments may affect your appearance in many ways, causing changes that may include:

  • Scars, usually from surgery
  • Hair loss, often caused by chemotherapy or radiation therapy
  • Loss or change in shape, size or swelling of a body part
  • Skin changes, such as redness, itching, more or less sensitivity, or pain in the treatment area
  • Weight loss or weight gain
  • Issues with balance, movement or physical activity
  • Chronic muscle weakness or fatigue
  • Changes in sexual function, such as loss of sexual interest, erectile difficulties, vaginal dryness, muscle weakness, infertility or early menopause

Physical changes may be temporary or permanent, but they may result in long-term emotional changes to your body image.

What is body image?

“Body image is part of self-image. It encompasses not only your physical appearance, but also your thoughts, perceptions and feelings about your body and how it functions,” says Diane Schaab, MS, LPC, Behavioral Health Therapist at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA), Atlanta. “Anything that changes the way your body experiences something is a part of body image.”  

Body-image issues caused by cancer are not always negative. Positive effects of cancer on body image may include:

  • Feeling more aware of your body, or feeling like you “know” your body
  • Feeling stronger because you completed your treatment
  • Feeling energized to treat your body well (by eating healthier foods and exercising)

What can you do to improve your body image?

“Research shows that cognitive behavioral body image therapy may produce meaningful improvements in how people feel about their physical appearance,” Schaab says. To help patients counteract negative body image, she shares these five behavioral health strategies:   

Be aware of internal self-talk. Try to offer yourself the same compassion you would give to a friend going through similar circumstances. Schaab recommends practicing positive affirmations while looking in the mirror. Examples include:

  • I accept myself just the way I am.
  • I accept that life is what I make of it. I have all the power.
  • I accept that I need to focus my attention on me first so I can be authentic to others.

Understand your communication needs. Determine what you need from your loved ones and ask for their help. For example, you could say, “I need you to look at me without commenting right now,” or “I need you to validate my emotions today.” 

Try positive new sensory experiences. Sensory experiences or mindfulness exercises may help you accept your body’s changes. Sensory experiences may include listening to music, taking a warm bath or lighting aromatic candles. Guided mindfulness exercises are available on a variety of free phone apps, such as MyLife, Ten Percent or Calm. The Free Mindfulness Project website includes dozens of podcasts on breathing, body scanning and sitting meditations.

Take care of your body. Eating well and getting enough sleep are important. Exercise may help improve your mood, reduce fatigue and give you strength. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that cancer patients set a goal of at least 150 minutes of exercise a week. But always check with your doctor to make sure your routine is tailored for your specific cancer type and treatment plan.

Seek support from others. It’s important to talk about your body’s changes and how they affect your self-esteem or sense of yourself. You may find it helpful to talk to other cancer survivors about how they coped. Programs like Cancer Fighters®, Imerman Angels and I Had Cancer match volunteer cancer survivors with cancer patients looking for support.

It’s also important to talk to a health professional about your concerns. It may seem hard to bring up issues like sexuality or appearance, but a behavioral health therapist may help you with strategies for your specific situation.

“Learning to accept yourself and your body is one of the most important steps you can take to promote your long-term well-being after cancer,” says Schaab. 

Learn seven ways to help you feel better when you don’t feel good.