Coping with Changes to Your Body
A cancer diagnosis and treatment can cause physical changes to your body and impact your body image (how you view your body). These changes include loss of hair, swelling, scars, changes to your ability to eat, removal of body parts, bowel/bladder control issues, pain, fatigue, and weight changes. Not only are these changes representative of a new way of life, but they also serve as a constant physical reminder of your cancer diagnosis and treatment.
It is normal to experience a range of emotions when coping with changes to your body. These emotions can lead to decreased self-esteem, social isolation, anxiety, and depression. It is important to give yourself time to adjust to the changes, to seek out peer connections and support from other patients who have experienced similar body changes, and to give yourself permission to cope with these changes in a way that works best for you.
Additionally, many cancer survivors worry that cancer will recur or come back. This can lead the survivor to become hyper-vigilant and observant of their bodies; noticing even the smallest change and quickly assuming, “the cancer is back.”
It is important to care for yourself and your body, even if you are angry, sad, worried, or bothered by the changes to your body, brought about as a result of your cancer diagnosis and treatment.
Some suggestions for self-care include:
- Get moving. Exercise, even a short walk up the street, releases endorphins, a naturally occurring mood booster. If you are worried about walking down the street or going to the gym because of changes to your appearance, you can follow exercise videos online or on television.
- Practice relaxation techniques like deep, slow breathing exercises, massage, and guided imagery. If you have a smartphone there are free and low price apps available for guided imagery and relaxation.
- You and your body (still) deserve pampering: get a massage, facial or other spa treatment. Talk with the provider about your body concerns before your treatment.
- Increase your knowledge of your cancer, its treatment, and your medications. Many people find that knowing some information about these gives a greater feeling of control and releases anxious feelings, helping them to embrace, not reject the impacted body part.
- Speak to your healthcare professional about ways to manage these changes including pain management, skin care for radiation effects, and prosthesis.
- Try appearance-enhancing techniques such as wigs, makeup, or specialized clothing.
- It is okay to grieve and mourn for things you have lost, including your hair, your stamina, your ability to swallow, or your skin tone. As you have fought your cancer, you have experienced losses that impact your life moving forward. Making sense and making meaning of these losses can help you move towards adaptation.
- Changes to our bodies may impact our ability to engage in intimate relationships. Talking with your partner about your fears, worries, and hopes for your newly reclaimed (or rediscovered) intimate relationships is very important. Don’t rush this. You need to feel comfortable with the changes to your body so that you can talk frankly with your partner about your body, your concerns, and your goals for reconnecting intimately. Remember, intimacy is more than just sexual intercourse. It involves touching, talking, and being present with someone whom you care about.
- Talk to your peers. Connect with other patients who have the same diagnosis through peer support matching programs. This helps to counter isolation and fosters relationships amongst people who have been through the same experience and can offer mutual aid and support.
- If your image concerns are causing anxiety that interferes with your ability to function, medications and more intense talk therapy may be indicated.
When to Contact Your Care Team
If you become preoccupied with a body change and you are unable to function on a normal basis, contact your care team. Before considering any kind of intervention to augment or change your body, it is also important to talk with your care team.
Resources for More Information
Fingeret MC, Hutcheson KA, Jensen K, Yuan Y, Urbauer D, Lewin JS. Associations among speech, eating, and body image concerns for surgical patients with head and neck cancer. Head & Neck. 2013;35(3):354-60.
Fingeret MC, Teo I, Epner DE. Managing body image difficulties of adult cancer patients: lessons from available research. Cancer. 2014;120(5):633-41.
Milbury K, Cohen L, Jenkins R, Skibber JM, Schover LR. The association between psychosocial and medical factors with long-term sexual dysfunction after treatment for colorectal cancer. Supportive care in cancer : official journal of the Multinational Association of Supportive Care in Cancer. 2013;21(3):793-802.
Rosenberg SM, Tamimi RM, Gelber S, Ruddy KJ, Kereakoglow S, Borges VF, et al. Body image in recently diagnosed young women with early breast cancer. Psycho-oncology. 2013;22(8):1849-55.