How body image concerns may affect you

Changes to your body caused by cancer treatment can lead you to you worry about your body image. This may make you feel anxious, less confident, angry or sad. Some people feel they are no longer the person they used to be, or worry about relationships, or going out.

There are ways to get support. This includes talking about your feelings with people you trust. You can also talk to your doctor, nurse or other people going through a similar experience.

Before treatment, your doctor or nurse will explain what to expect afterwards. You’ll need time to adjust to body changes. Be kind to yourself and if you have a visible change try not to delay looking at it. This can make it harder to accept and prevents you finding out if your fear is as bad as you think.

Anxiety can cause physical symptoms and be difficult to cope with. Coping with body changes may make you feel very low at times. Tell your doctor if these feelings don’t improve so they can arrange for you to get the right support.

Body image concerns

Body changes may cause you to have concerns about your body image. This may start before or during your treatment, or you may not think about it until later.

Everyone’s reaction is different. Some people may feel more self-conscious about their body but find it manageable. Or you may find your concerns are on your mind a lot of the time and find this upsetting.

Body image concerns may make you feel:

  • less confident
  • anxious about people’s reactions to you
  • worried about going out and meeting people
  • as if you’ve lost a part of yourself or aren’t the person you used to be
  • worried about your relationship or about starting a new relationship
  • less feminine or less masculine.

You may also feel angry, anxious or sad. These are normal feelings when you’re coping with cancer and body changes. You may feel as if you are grieving for what you have lost.

Talking openly with people you trust can be the best way forward. This could be your family or close friends, or your cancer doctor or nurse. Talking to another person who has been through something similar can also help. There are different types of support to help you cope with your feelings.

But you may also find you come to value how your body has coped. Some people see their body changes as signs of their survivorship. It can also be good to know that people appreciate you for who you are, not for your appearance.

Body image after treatment

Hear Richard, Peter, Heather and Stacey talk about how they felt about their bodies after cancer treatment, and how they rebuilt their confidence.

About our cancer information videos

Body image after treatment

Hear Richard, Peter, Heather and Stacey talk about how they felt about their bodies after cancer treatment, and how they rebuilt their confidence.

About our cancer information videos


Getting used to the changes

Try to allow yourself time to get used to your body changes and be kind to yourself.

Before treatment, your doctor and specialist nurse will explain what to expect. This can help you feel more prepared and less anxious. Finding out about the cancer and its treatment helps you understand it better. It also helps you learn about managing the side effects of treatment.

If you have a body change you need to manage, for example a stoma, your specialist nurse will show you how to do this. Different support organisations can usually put you in touch with someone who has been through a similar experience. Or you could look for support online.

If you have a visible body change, such as a scar or stoma, try not to put off looking at it or dealing with it. You can do this with someone close to you, your nurse, or your doctor, or on your own. Delaying it often makes it more difficult to accept the change.

At first, you may feel shocked and upset, but these feelings usually lessen as you begin to get used to the change. You could look at the area covered up, then uncovered, and gradually build up to touching the area. Some people find it helpful to use a mirror when they start to look at the change in their body.

If you find it isn’t getting easier, always ask your nurse or doctor for help.


Anxiety

It’s common to feel anxious when you’re concerned about your body image. For example, you may worry about people’s reaction to how you look, or the effect it has on your relationships. Although everyone feels anxious sometimes, it becomes a problem when it interferes with your day-to-day life.

When we’re feeling threatened, our bodies release the hormone adrenaline. This causes the physical symptoms we get with acute anxiety:

  • feeling breathless or overbreathing (hyperventilating)
  • feeling your heart is beating too fast
  • tight, aching muscles
  • feeling dizzy or sick
  • a dry mouth or sweating
  • needing to go to the toilet more often.


Avoidance

It’s common to try to avoid situations or things that make us anxious. This may be a relief in the short term, but it can make things more difficult in the long term. It doesn’t give you the chance to find out if facing your fear is as bad as you think. It also keeps anxiety and fears going.

Avoidance may result in:

  • avoiding looking at or dealing with a body change
  • not going out, looking in a mirror or shopping for clothes
  • delaying or not making a decision about treatment because it involves a body change.

There are different ways to help you to cope with anxiety. You can do some of these for yourself, with the support of family or friends. Or you may feel you need further help from a doctor or nurse.

Getting help to understand your fears and working towards taking back control can help reduce them. You may also realise that other people see you in a different and more positive way than you’d imagined.


Depression

It’s natural to feel sad and low at times when you’re coping with body changes. If this continues or gets worse, you may be depressed. Sometimes other people may notice it first and talk to you about getting help.

Some symptoms of depression include:

  • having a low mood most of the time
  • crying a lot or feeling unable to cry
  • getting little pleasure out of life
  • feeling very tired
  • being unusually irritable
  • having difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • finding it difficult to sleep, waking up early, or sleeping more than usual
  • poor appetite or weight loss.

If you think you might be depressed, talk to your GP, specialist doctor, nurse or other healthcare professional at the hospital. They can listen and refer you for professional support from a counsellor. They may talk to you about taking prescribed drugs to help treat depression.

Occasionally, people may feel very low and need to talk to someone when they can’t contact their doctor, nurse or counsellor. Samaritans has a 24-hour confidential helpline that provides support to anyone in emotional crisis.

Back to Body image after treatment

Taking control

Take control to help you feel more confident socially following changes to your body.

Tips on managing day to day

It can be difficult to talk about your body changes. There are ways you can prepare for awkward questions.

Effects on your sex life

Cancer treatment may affect your sex life. It can be helpful to get advice from a specialist.