Self image and cancer

Cancer and its treatments can bring about many physical changes. 

These changes can affect both how you look and how you feel about yourself. You may be finding your confidence and self esteem are affected. 

The information on this page will help you to find out more about the possible impact on your self image, and ways to manage the changes, during and after cancer treatment.

Self image and cancer

Self image is how you feel about yourself: your body, appearance, and who you are as a person. It includes your perception of how others see you. When cancer is diagnosed, your self image may change.

Cancer and its treatments can often change how we look, which in turn affects how we see ourselves (body image). 

The cancer itself may cause physical changes.  In addition, treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy may cause temporary (or, in some cases, permanent) changes to your body. 

These can include scarring or loss of part of the body, hair loss, weight changes, rashes, stomas, and changes in levels of strength and mobility.  It is normal to feel anxious and self aware as changes occur.

It takes time for our minds to adjust to way we might look during and after treatment. 

New scars and changes in your appearance can leave you feeling upset, tearful, angry and frustrated. Feeling less confident about how you look can make you feel anxious about what others think. You may feel less comfortable in social and intimate situations for a time.  

Emotionally, you can sometimes feel low in mood, anxious or depressed. You may be grieving the old ‘you’, and not feel able to find your new post cancer identity.  

Not everyone feels this way, and some people find they adapt to the new situation more easily than others. There is no right or wrong here.

Managing self image and cancer

There are things you can do to help manage how you’re feeling. Here are some useful tips:-

  • Prepare for the changes which may occur:  find out what physical impact the treatments may have, and think about ways to prepare for them.  
  • Check what you’re feeling is normal: If you’re finding you’re anxious or upset about the changes you’re seeing in your body as part of cancer and it’s treatments, discuss your concerns with your healthcare team. 
  • Prepare some conversation sound bites for those people who are meeting you for the first time since your physical appearance has changed…’I’ve been having cancer treatment, so I might look at bit different at the moment, but I’m ok…’ lets them acknowledge the changes and move on, or open the discussion further if you and they wish.
  • It’s normal to feel sad: Physical and emotional changes are a loss, temporary or permanent, and you may need to grieve. If the sadness remains, and you’re finding you’re feeling panicky, anxious or depressed, then seek help. This can be from your GP, counselling, or through your hospital services. 
  • Learn to accept the body you have: the way it works, flaws and all.  Even if your body changes, you are still ‘you’.
  • Aim to look outward, rather than inward: try new things to build your confidence. Letting go of the way things were, and living for the present, can help with acceptance.
  • Talk openly with your partner, family and friends about your vulnerabilities, and invite their support and positive feedback.
  • Take control back where you can: Good nutrition, exercise and stress management can help rebuild your body confidence. Your local Maggie’s offers workshops and courses to help promote physical and emotional well being, and you can access individual and group support.

What now?

If you’re feeling low in mood, anxious or depressed about your self image, discuss your concerns with your doctor or specialist nurse.  They can reassure you about the changes, if they are temporary, and guide you to appropriate counselling and support.

Talk with others about what you are experiencing. It can help to hear that what you’re feeling is not unusual, and help you feel less alone.  Call into your local Maggie’s to connect with our cancer support specialists and others in a similar position to yourself.

Last review: Nov 2021 | Next review: Nov 2022

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