Body image

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by

Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science

This page was updated on April 29, 2022.

Your body image is how you see yourself. It’s how you picture yourself, and your body, in the world. Cancer may cause all kinds of disruptions that take an emotional toll—including your understanding of who you are and what you look like.

It may be difficult to get used to a change in how you look—especially in the case of losing a breast or a limb. But even smaller changes, like scars, or temporary ones, like hair loss or rashes, may feel difficult to adjust to. Changes that other people can’t see may feel painful, too, like losing your fertility, experiencing changes in your sex drive, or coping with decreased energy.

Physical changes from cancer

Cancer may lead to a variety of body changes. Some may go away or return to normal over time, while others may be permanent. You may feel uncomfortable or embarrassed about some of these changes. Whether they’re temporary or permanent, it may help to remind yourself that they often don’t seem as extreme to other people as they do to you—and that the most important thing of all is your health and your life.

Temporary changes include:

  • Weight gain or loss
  • Hair loss
  • Rashes or other skin changes
  • Port-a-cath (chemo ports)
  • Temporary ostomies
  • Loss of energy
  • Decreased sex drive

Permanent changes include:

  • Scars
  • Loss of an organ, limb or breast
  • Permanent ostomies
  • Loss of fertility

Emotional changes with cancer

It’s not just your looks that affect your self-image. With changes to your body, it’s normal for your emotions and how you relate to others to go through an adjustment, too. Cancer and cancer treatments are known to have physiological effects on your mood, energy levels, appetite and sex drive. It’s normal to experience a range of emotions, including:

  • Anger
  • Frustration
  • Fear
  • Grief
  • Loneliness
  • Guilt
  • Loss of control
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

You may feel like being less active than usual, even though you’re normally a marathon runner or weekly tennis player. Or maybe you were on your way to a new position in your career when cancer treatment zapped your energy and filled your schedule. That kind of disruption may take a toll on your self-image, too.

Plus, these experiences may change how you relate to other people, including your spouse, family, friends and coworkers. Maybe you’re a parent who is used to being the caregiver, but now it’s you who needs some care. It’s normal to feel sad, confused or uncomfortable with these kinds of role changes.

Nine ways to cope with physical and emotional changes

In general, it’s important to remember that some body changes go away over time, after treatment ends, and that the ones that remain may not always make you feel bad. A range of feelings, including loss or even grief, are normal when faced with such big changes.

Below are some strategies for dealing with these feelings and adjusting to a healthy self-image in the face of cancer.

  1. Give yourself time: Getting used to changes takes time. Be kind to yourself.
  2. Speak with your care team about the changes: There may be ways to alleviate symptoms such as weight or skin changes. Doctors also may have suggestions to make things like ostomy bags or port-a-caths more comfortable.
  3. Speak openly about your experience with the people closest to you: You may feel less alone, and it may give them the tools to support you.
  4. Join a support group for people in similar situations: For example, support groups are available for people who’ve had mastectomies, who live with ostomies, who have lost their ability to have biological children, and more.
  5. Experiment with new styles: A new haircut, wig, item of clothing or accessory may give you a small boost of self-confidence.
  6. Stay active: If you feel up to it, exercise may help reduce stress and boost self-image. Ask your care team about recommended exercises.
  7. If you’re facing intimacy problems, discuss this with your care team: It’s common for people with cancer to have sexual problems, including a loss of sex drive, trouble with erections, vaginal dryness, or shame about body changes.
  8. Focus on being intimate without sex: Try going on dates or holding and touching each other in a comforting way.
  9. Know that you decide when to talk about cancer: When dating someone new or meeting new people in general, know that you don’t have to tell someone about your cancer or your body changes until you’re ready. Or you may feel better being out in the open from the beginning. Either way, it’s totally OK.

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