Coping With Emotions

Body Image and Cancer: How to Improve Your Confidence During Treatment

Cancer treatment can bring on many physical changes you're not ready to deal with. Thankfully, there are programs available to help you look and feel your best. You can shift your mindset, too, by reminding yourself that you're beautiful.

While not all cancers cause your body to change significantly, you may still experience body image and cancer concerns. It might be hair loss, skin damage, weight loss or weight gain, swelling, scarring from surgery, breast loss from mastectomy or a combination of a few changes. Even if you can conceal these changes, you might still feel insecure in your new body. Here’s how body image and cancer are related, and some ways to combat these troubles.

Find the Right Routine

Through cancer treatment, you still want to look your best. The Look Good Feel Better program from the American Cancer Society helps patients cope with body image and cancer changes. Faith Havran, a patient resource navigator for the American Cancer Society and UVA Cancer Center, says the program offers small group sessions run by trained volunteer beauty professionals who can teach you how to use cosmetic and skin care products for skin and hair changes during treatment. You can also learn about hair loss resources, how to tie scarves in fashionable ways and how to care for your wigs. “In addition to the step-by-step makeover guide, the small group sessions provide women the opportunity to share and receive support from others going through cancer treatment,” she says.

The program has informational videos for men and teens too. Try out some tutorials that cater to your specific needs. You can try out a new hair look each week to see what works for you. Even just purchasing a new accessory in a favorite color can give you a boost.

Try Therapy and Group Discussion

You may find comfort in talking with others about your body image and cancer issues. Sharing experiences helps you realize you’re not alone in this situation and that people around you may not see your appearance the way you do. Bring up your concerns about your appearance at your next therapy session. Psychologists and social workers, like those at UVA Cancer Center, can help you work through your feelings and assist you in finding resources. Some cancer patients find it helpful to shift their perspective, looking at the positive aspects of their experience, such as gratitude for life itself and an appreciation for friends and family. Others find that writing regularly in a journal is therapeutic and a good reminder of what they went through to regain their health.

Prepare for Questions

You’ll, unfortunately, get some questions from friends or even strangers on your appearance. While that’s difficult, even if the comments are well-meaning, it’s helpful to have some prepared responses and even practice them with a trusted friend. Sometimes responding with humor helps, whether it’s a well-timed joke or a clever hat.

Have a Laugh

Speaking of humor, laughter has positive effects on your body, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology. You’ll want to find ways to bring joy into your life to negate some of your negative feelings. Laughter Yoga is one way that some cancer patients find an energy release (and fun), to promote their healing. It’s often done as a group, with specific exercises to bring out sustained belly laughs. Laughter Yoga groups have spread throughout the country, with a training center in Charlottesville, Virginia. You could also take up or renew a hobby to gain confidence in other areas of your life. If you like cooking, for example, get your mind off your treatment by taking a class.

It’s healthy to mourn changes caused by cancer treatment, and it’s natural to have negative feelings. Finding a new outlet or coping mechanism helps you deal with any body issues that come with treatment.

The Flourish Boutique at UVA Cancer Center is designed to help you feel better and gain confidence during treatment. It sells everything from skin care products to wigs, turbans and mastectomy garments.

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Deborah Abrams Kaplan
Deborah Abrams Kaplan