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Body Image and Cancer

You can’t control the way cancer changes your body, but you can control how you cope with those changes.

by Carrie Panzer, LCSW

Wellness image

The way you view your body plays an important role in your overall sense of self. A cancer diagnosis can in­stantly change your relationship with your body. Many survivors feel disap­pointed or embarrassed by their bodies following diagnosis. These feelings are normal. And support is available to ad­dress your body image concerns both during and after treatment. With more people surviving cancer every year, an increasing number of doctors, psychol­ogists, and social workers are focusing on body image issues in order to im­prove long-term quality of life for survivors. Regardless of your age, gen­der, sexuality, or relationship status, it’s important to address your body image concerns – especially when you’re dealing with cancer.

Many cancer survivors experience temporary treatment-related physical changes, such as hair loss during chemotherapy, numbness following surgery, or fluctuations in weight. Others might experience permanent changes, including surgical scars, a permanent ostomy, and infertility. Whether temporary or permanent, any of these changes can negatively affect how you view your body. Even changes within your body that are not visible to the outside world can have just as much of an impact on your body image as external physical changes.

Regardless of your age, gender, sexuality, or relationship status, it’s important to address your body image concerns – especially when you’re dealing with cancer.

Author of Article photo

Carrie Panzer

Once treatment ends, you may feel pressure from others to move on and to not worry about changes in your appearance. However, it takes time to adjust to and accept your post-cancer body, and it’s important to do so at your own pace. Acknowledging your feelings about your body and how it works for you can help you maintain a positive self-image during and after treatment.

Whether you are in the midst of treatment or coping with body image issues that have arisen years into survivorship, an oncology social worker can provide counseling to address and explore your concerns. You need to be aware of certain signs that may in- dicate your body image concerns are affecting your quality of life. For ex­ample, if you feel hesitant to leave your home because of your appearance or if you avoid certain activities that you once enjoyed, you should seek help to address these issues and to explore ways you can bring these activities back into your life.

Take time to make a list of activities that make you feel positive, strong, and empowered in your body. Some examples include taking a regular, restorative yoga class; cuddling with your children, grandchildren, or pets; taking a walk along a body of water; practicing tai chi; meditating; or receiv­ing a therapeutic massage. Another strategy for coping with body image changes is to make a list of five things you feel grateful for in your life each day. Recognizing what you feel grate­ful for can make you feel good about yourself on the inside.

You may also want to consider join­ing a support group specific to your type of cancer. Support groups allow you to connect with other cancer survivors who are facing similar physical changes and body image concerns. A social worker can help you locate a support group at your treatment center, in your community, or even online.

Because body image can be influ­enced by contemporary culture and certain cultural ideals, it may help to avoid negative triggers, such as glossy fashion magazines. The images in these publications generally do not represent reality and offer only a narrow view of beauty. Instead, celebrate the diversity in the people around you, and in doing so, learn to appreciate what is unique and beautiful about yourself.

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Carrie Panzer is a clinical social worker at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, NY. She is also a graduate and active member of the Women’s Therapy Centre Institute in Manhattan.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2013.