Living with, or having lived with a diagnosis of cancer, and the impact of cancer treatments such as Chemotherapy, Radiotherapy and Surgery may affect your self-esteem, your confidence, and how you think and feel about yourself.
You may also worry that people may look at you differently or change the way they interact with you due to the physical changes you experience through your cancer journey. This may now cause some uncertainty on how to relate to others.
It is important to highlight there is no right or wrong way to feel, and everyone will have different reactions at different times. For some it may happen straightaway e.g. after consenting to a mastectomy. But for others it may happen long after their treatment has finished. It is normal to have varied reactions at different times throughout your cancer journey.
Some common self-critical thoughts related to body image may include:
- I am not a woman / man anymore
- I am weak
- Others will see me as ‘ill’
- People will stare and ask me questions about my appearance and condition
- I am unlovable
- I hate my body or how I look
- No one would find me sexually desirable
You might even question things that you did not think much of before:
- How will I cope with looking different?
- What will my life be like now that I look nothing like myself?
- How am I going to interact with others? Will they reject me? Will they take pity on me?
- Why me? Why did this happen to me?
- Why am I thinking like this? I should be grateful to be alive!
Body changes after breast cancer
- Change to the breast shape, or loss of the breast
- Hair loss during treatment, and often a change in hair colour and texture when it grows back
- Weight change
- Early menopause
- Pain or numbness in the chest or arm
- Loss of interest in sex
- Pain during sex
- Reduced stamina
Body changes during and after treatment
Going through treatment can be emotional. You may feel like treatment objectifies your body. The parts of your body that are usually hidden and private may become always exposed and handled. This may make you feel like you don’t ‘own’ your body anymore, and that cancer has taken over. But you can take back your body after cancer and feel like yourself again.
Impact of changes in body image on everyday life
Worries and concerns about body image are common, and they can happen at any time in your cancer journey. You may notice changes in how your body functions, feels and looks depending on the type of cancer and treatment.
You might see yourself differently due to some of the common side effects from treatment; such as hair loss, changes in body shape, loss of part or use of the body, and general sickness and fatigue. All of this can impact on how we see and feel about ourselves. When you have lots of changes in a relatively small period of time, you can start to not feel like yourself, and you might find it difficult to come to terms with these changes.
These feelings might lead to unhelpful ways of coping, such as:
- withdrawing from others completely
- not wanting to be seen
- staying in bed all day
- becoming dependent on family
- using alcohol and drugs to distract from / dampen down difficult emotions
Some unhelpful coping behaviours may have short term benefits such as reducing anxiety, but they're likely to maintain anxiety in the long term. And they may lead to missing out on things that used to be fun and rewarding in life. These can include:
- avoiding public places
- avoiding interactions with people
- being overly self-conscious / quickly embarrassed
- becoming aggressive and irritable
- fearing intimate relationships (platonic or romantic)
- wearing certain clothes to cover up
Learning how to cope with anxieties around your body image can help to rebuild your confidence, identity and self-esteem. You can do this by slowly exposing yourself to the feared situation in a safe way, which will help manage your anxious feelings. For example, if you were anxious about meeting friends after your diagnosis, you could meet a friend for coffee at a café or at a park where you could leave if you start feeling overwhelmed.
You can create small actionable goals that are 'SMART' to help you tackle situations where you may be more anxious than usual:
What particular actions will help you achieve your goal?
What will help you identify when you have achieved your goal?
How possible is the action?
Are you ready to tackle this action?
How long will it take for you to complete the goal?
Getting familiar with the look and feel of your body now can help you accept the changes that have happened.