Taking control

After you have been through changes to your body, you may feel less confident socially.

There are a number of ways you might be able to feel more confident in social situations:

  • Finding out information about your cancer and its treatment may help you prepare for changes to your body.
  • Family and friends can help you to feel valued. They may also help you come to terms with change.
  • Setting goals may help you get back on track if you are finding it hard to engage in social activities.
  • Thinking through your problems and worries can help you to understand your feelings.
  • Developing social skills may help you to communicate how you are feeling in social situations.
  • Covering up the changes to your body may make you more comfortable in public.
  • Exercising can improve how you feel about your body and it releases chemicals that make you feel good.

Taking control

It can be easy to focus on change in a negative way. However, you can take control and find ways and people to help you adapt. Sometimes this starts when you feel ready to look after yourself again, see or touch the affected area or socialise with family and friends. There are various things which can help at different times and in different situations, so having a range of approaches is useful.


Getting information

At the hospital, you'll probably be given lots of information about your cancer and its treatment. This can help to prepare you for what may happen due to the cancer and its treatment. It can also help you make decisions about treatment options, such as reconstruction.

Many people benefit from taking someone they trust with them to appointments. They can help you ask important questions and remember what you've been told.

Health professionals can:

  • give you information – for example, they might tell you about a possible side effect and what may help, such as a cold cap treatment for hair loss
  • refer you to other members of the team – for example, occupational therapy can help with problems caused by tiredness
  • refer you to other services, such as counselling, if you agree that would be helpful
  • refer you to another healthcare professional for a second opinion about your care if you feel this would be useful.


Family and friends

Your family and friends can help you feel confident and valued. They can also encourage you when you are trying new ways of adapting to body changes.

However, while you may appreciate their offers of support you may feel:

  • they don't understand how you feel
  • frustrated as they are doing things that you're unable to do
  • upset or irritated if you feel they are trying to protect you.

Talking to your family and friends can let them know how you really feel. It also lets them know what you would like them to do to help you. For example, they can go out with you and feed back their view of a situation.

They may also find it helpful to read this information.


Setting goals

Many people stop doing things they enjoy while having cancer treatment. When you have a body change after treatment you may continue to avoid social activities due to anxiety. However, this may mean you miss out on things you really like to do. Therefore, it's important to think about things you know you'd like to do or achieve. Setting goals can help. Your goal should be:

  • Personal – important to you, not others.
  • Realistic – think about goals you feel ready or able to deal with.
  • Achievable – choose something that is realistically possible.
  • Measurable – think about how you will know you have achieved your goal.
  • Specific – think about details which will help you achieve that goal.

If your overall goal is quite difficult then it's better to identify short, mid and long-term goals. You can break these down further into a series of steps if needed.


Problem solving

Sometimes worries or problems can seem overwhelming. For example, you may worry about going out after a body change and wonder if you'll ever be able to enjoy a normal social life again. It can be hard to believe that things can change or that anything can help. Problem-solving can help you break down problems into something more manageable. This is done through a series of steps:

  • Step 1 – Identify the problem. Try to be as specific as possible. Work on a single problem which has an achievable goal. Write down the problem in one sentence. If you can't do this then the problem is too big. You will need to break the problem down further. You may wish to speak to a relative or close friend to help you do this.
  • Step 2 – Think about any solution which may help your problem.
  • Step 3 – Think about the pros and cons of each possible solution.
  • Step 4 – Think about the solutions which are most likely to solve your problem.
  • Step 5 – Try it out.
  • Step 6 – Review. Consider if the problem has been solved. Has a different problem been identified? Would another solution have been better?

Dealing with one problem in a successful way will help you overcome bigger problems.

An example is given below:

Fred had problems swallowing due to a dry mouth caused by radiotherapy. He was concerned about not being able to eat at a restaurant. Rather than avoid going out  Fred thought about different solutions and he decided to phone the chosen restaurant to check the menu. He realised there were things on the menu which he could eat. He also asked if he could have a smaller portion and extra sauce. After learning this would be okay he felt less anxious and more confident about going out with his family for a meal. He also got an information card from a health professional which explained why he needed small portions.

You may want to jot down a problem and follow the steps above.

Problem:

Possible solutions:

Best solutions:

Review:


Developing your social skills

Sometimes people may stare, make comments, ask questions or avoid people with body changes. This can be upsetting and hard to deal with. Social skills focus on how to communicate well and can help you manage social gatherings and the reactions of other people. You may find it helpful to try out new approaches and see if they work for you. We are all different and different things will work for each of us.

You may wish to think about:

  • Presentation – The way you present yourself overall is important, for example, dress and accessories. It conveys a message to other people about how you feel about yourself.
  • Posture – Communication involves the whole body. Standing with your shoulders back and head up makes you look confident and assertive.
  • Engaging with people – Making eye contact, smiling and nodding tells others that you are approachable.
  • Taking the initiative – You may wish to talk about your body changes at an appropriate point in a conversation. This can reduce your anxiety and help you maintain control. For example, you could say to someone you've not seen for a while: 'I've not seen you for ages. You look well. You might notice I've lost a lot of weight. I had cancer treatment but am slowly getting better.'
  • Staring/negative comments – Stares or comments can be distressing. You can let the person know that you're aware of it and want it to stop. This can be done through non-verbal signals such as an assertive look, smiling, nodding or frowning. Or you can use verbal responses, for example 'Please don't stare at me. It's only a scar.'

It takes time for these approaches to feel natural. As you go through different experiences, these can help you change your approach for the future.


Covering up changes

There are a number of different ways to cover up changes. Your healthcare team may be able to:

  • Advise you about clothing and accessories, for example, using a scarf to cover up hair loss
  • Ensure you use the most relevant and discreet product, for example, a speaking valve, after surgery to remove the voice box (larynx)
  • Refer you to Changing Faces for advice about camouflage make-up
  • Refer you for a replacement part (prosthesis), for example, a breast prosthesis.

Many of us cover up parts of our body that we are less comfortable with. It can be useful to camouflage a change but some people may become focused on hiding it. This can make them anxious and may lead them to avoid situations as they're frightened that other people will find out about the change. For example, someone with weight and muscle loss may not go swimming for fear of it being seen.

Sometimes attempting to hide a change can draw more attention to it. For example, wearing a high neck jumper to cover scarring in the summer can draw attention, whereas a silk scarf would be less obvious.

Another approach is to enhance other areas of your body as this can draw attention away from an area of concern. For example, wearing lipstick or blusher may detract from the loss of eyelashes.

Some hospitals and support groups run programmes such as Look Good...Feel Better, an organisation which gives women expert advice on make-up and skin care. Ask your specialist nurse what services like this are available locally. Many people find it useful to have a range of ways to help adapt to changes.

You may want to take a few minutes to jot down how you might cover up any changes you may have. Think about how this is useful and what else might help.


Exercising

Some areas run exercise programmes for people with cancer. Regular exercise can improve your body image and release chemicals which make you feel good. Evidence shows that exercise may help reduce the risk of some cancers coming back or of developing a new cancer.

There are also living with cancer programmes, which can help you move on after cancer and treatment. The members of your healthcare team should be able to tell you about local services.

We have information about physical activity and weight management which you may find helpful.


Back to Body image after treatment

How body changes might affect you

Physical changes to your body or appearance can be difficult to deal with.

Talking about your body changes

It can be helpful to talk to someone you trust about changes to your body after cancer treatment.

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.

Tips on changing your thought pattern

If you are always thinking negatively about your body or appearance, there are ways to help you think more positively.

Emotional effects of body changes

Physical changes to your body can sometimes make you feel angry, anxious or depressed. There are things you can do to help.

Effects on your sex life

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