Dr Lorena Tussis on body image and confidence

Wednesday 14 February 2024

A cancer diagnosis can lead to changes in your body and abilities that might affect your self image and confidence.

Dr Lorena Tussis, Clinical Psychologist at Maggie’s West London, explores how to rebuild your body image and self confidence when it has been affected by cancer, and how Maggie’s can help.

Two women swatching makeup as part of a workshop

Cancer and self-confidence

The mind can be tricky. It can come up with a lot of unhelpful thoughts. It’s the mind’s job to protect us, and one of the ways it does this is by coming up with worst-case scenarios that might or might not happen, so that we feel ready to tackle whatever unfolds.

But this is a double-edged sword – while the mind is trying to protect us, in reality, it can limit us by making us scared. Our natural response to these worries is to withdraw and avoid doing things, when actually, it would be better to try to do them anyway.

Instead of waiting for your fears and difficult thoughts to disappear before you do something, it’s about taking them by the hand and bringing them along with you. While the thoughts may still be present, it’s about learning to tolerate them so that you can still live a life that is meaningful.

It might help to imagine the difficult thoughts and feelings as a beach ball – if you try to push those thoughts down, they will soon bounce back up to the surface. You’ll become tired from the effort, and you’ll be distracted from the present.

Similarly, you could try to really analyse the difficult thoughts and fears, but again, it would be difficult to stay present.

So, if trying to get rid of the unhelpful thoughts doesn’t work, and if trying to resolve them doesn’t work either, what you can do is bring them with you. They’re still there, and you might not like them, but you are no longer struggling with them. Instead, you are choosing what to respond to and trying to change your relationship to them.

Over time, this will help with your confidence as you start to engage with things, without letting the difficult thoughts stop you. Because confidence comes from doing, that’s the tricky bit!

Body image after a cancer diagnosis or treatment

Body positivity is often associated with loving or liking your body. In some cases, that’s not going to happen, and that’s OK. But if you’re actively avoiding your body, avoiding looking at yourself, or even avoiding going out or socialising, maybe that’s something that could be worked on.

It doesn’t mean you need to love your body, but if you are holding back on living your life because of it, Maggie's can help you with that and we’re here to support you.

We can think about something called progressive desensitisation. Start by asking yourself what is the part that you find the most unbearable about your body, and what do you find the most bearable. Then, try to create a list and order them from the least to the most scary. You can then work progressively through them, and that tends to involve exposure.

For example, let’s say someone has had a mastectomy and has had their breast(s) removed. They would start by imagining what that looks like. The next step might be to look at themselves in the mirror for a couple of seconds. Then next time, they might look for a few seconds longer. Perhaps the step after that would be to touch it.

It’s about trying to progressively build, knowing that is doesn’t need to be met with a sense of love for the new body, but moving away from a sense of rejection, and towards acceptance.

How Maggie's can help

If you are dealing with a cancer diagnosis and are looking to rebuild your confidence or for other support, Maggie's can help.

Our cancer support specialists are here for whatever stage you're at, whatever it is that you're facing.

We also have a range of activities you could join, such as Look Good Feed Better workshops, support groups, exercises classes and more.

Find your nearest centre and talk to a cancer support specialist to find out more. You don't need an appointment –  just come in.

Last review: Feb 2024 | Next review: Feb 2025

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