Cancer can change the way you look, temporarily or permanently. Some people gain or lose weight. Chemotherapy can sometimes make your hair fall out. You may have had surgery to remove a part of your body, and you may have scars. You may now have an ostomyostomyA surgical procedure to create a stoma (artificial opening) between an organ or structure and the outside of the body. as part of your treatment.
These changes, even if only you can see them, can affect self-esteem – or how you feel about yourself. For many people, self-esteem is very closely tied with body image, which is how you feel about your body. At times, you may feel unattractive and negative about your body. Even though the effects of treatment may not show on the outside, body changes can still be troubling because the “old body” is lost. These feelings can be difficult to cope with.
You may be afraid to go out and be with other people. You may worry about rejection or not want to be intimate with your partner. You may be feeling angry, upset or sad.
For some changes, like hair loss from chemotherapy, it can help to remember that they are only temporary. You’ll probably begin to look and feel more like your old self when treatment is over.
But some changes, such as loss of a body part or surgical scars, are permanent. You will need time to adjust to these. People often worry about how they look to a partner, children, other family members and friends. They may be afraid that body changes make them unattractive, might scare family members or get in the way of staying close.
Changes in the way you look can be difficult for you and your loved ones. It takes time to grieve the loss of your “old body” and work through feelings about the changes. It may help to talk about how you’re feeling with your partner or a trusted friend. A support group with people who have had similar cancer experiences can give you a place to speak with others who are coping with the same fears and concerns you have. Your healthcare team can suggest professional counsellors who have experience in helping people cope with body changes and improve self-esteem.
Staying active, visiting with friends and doing activities you enjoy can help you feel better about your body image.
You may want to try a different haircut, hair colour, makeup or clothing. Programs such as Look Good, Feel Better can make a difference to how you feel about yourself. This program offers tips on makeup, skin care, dealing with hair thinning or loss and other appearance-related side effects of cancer treatment for women and men. Looking good can help you feel better – physically and emotionally.
Your healthcare team can explain other options, such as using a prosthesisprosthesisAn artificial device used to replace a part of the body. or having cosmetic or reconstructive surgery that may help resolve physical appearance and function issues.
Remember that you are more than your body or the changes to your body that have happened because of cancer. You have worth no matter how you look or what happens to you.
The Canadian Cancer Society’s Cancer Information Service (CIS) is Canada’s only national, bilingual, toll-free service that offers personalized comprehensive cancer information in over 100 languages.