Cancer and body image concerns

Body image is important to us. It’s how we think and feel about our body and how we think others value us.

Concerns about body image are common in people affected by cancer. This is because cancer and its treatments can cause changes to how your body looks, works, and feels. These changes can include:

  • hair loss
  • losing a part of your body
  • scarring
  • swelling of a body part
  • having a colostomy
  • weight gain or weight loss
  • changes to your speech.

Body changes that can’t be seen also cause body image concerns. This includes no longer being able to have children (infertility). Or, it could be late effects of treatment that interfere with how your bowel or bladder works.

It’s important to remember that body image concerns are common after cancer. There are different ways you can get support and ways to improve your body image.

What is body image?

Body image is the picture in our mind of how our body looks and works. It’s how we think and feel about our bodies and how we believe others see us.

Our body image is important. It’s linked to our feelings of self-worth and how we think others value us.

Cancer and its treatments can change your body and how you feel about it. Because of this, body image concerns are common in people affected by cancer. Women and men at any age can have body image concerns.

Changes to your body may be temporary or permanent. They include changes that can be seen by you or others, such as hair loss or weight gain. They also include changes that are more private.

Body image concerns are different for everyone. Some people may feel uncomfortable or unhappy about their bodies. Others may feel so anxious they avoid going out or socialising. Sometimes body image concerns can make you feel less feminine or less masculine.

There are things you can do to improve your body image. There are also different ways to get help and support.


Cancer and body changes

Cancer and its treatments can cause changes to your body. These can affect how you see or feel about your body (body image). Body changes can affect:

  • how your body looks
  • how it works
  • how it feels.

They can happen quickly or gradually and may be temporary or permanent.

Some changes can be seen by others (they are visible). Others may be hidden, except from you. There are also changes that can’t be seen but can still affect your body image, for example infertility. These can make you feel vulnerable and self-conscious about your body.

You may be coping with more than one body change. Remember that body image concerns are common and there are different ways to get help and support.

Possible body changes

We don’t list all the possible body changes here. There are too many to mention, but below are some common visible changes:

  • Hair loss. This means losing hair from your head. It can also include eyebrows, eyelashes and body hair. This is usually a side effect of chemotherapy. Radiotherapy to the head also causes hair loss.
  • Scarring from surgery, or losing a part of your body, such as a breast or a limb. You may decide to wear a prosthesis (false part) to replace a part of your body that’s been removed.
  • Changes in how your body works after certain types of surgery. For example, you may have changes after surgery to remove part of the bowel, or to remove the bladder or voicebox (larynx). This can include having a colostomy, an ileostomy, a urostomy or a tracheostomy.
  • Losing weight or putting on weight. Putting on weight is often caused by steroids.
  • Skin changes. Rashes, dry skin, spots or redness may be side effects of chemotherapy, targeted therapies, hormonal therapies or steroids. Radiotherapy can affect the skin colour in the treated area or cause broken veins to appear later.
  • Swelling of an arm or leg, or other parts of the body (called lymphoedema).
  • Changes in the way you speak, eat or breathe, or changes in your movement, balance or co-ordination.

Body changes that are not visible include the following:

  • Infertility or early menopause.
  • Reduced sex drive, or being unable to have sex.
  • Feeling tired and weak or unable to do activities, such as sports or activities you did before treatment.
  • Late treatment effects that change the way your bladder or bowel work.
  • Changes in sensation. For example, you may have numbness in part of your body after surgery, or in your hands and feet after chemotherapy (peripheral neuropathy).

Back to Cancer and body image

Relationships, intimacy and sex

Cancer and its treatments can affect your sex life and relationships. Talking openly and taking the time to get used to possible body changes can help.

Helping you take control

Setting realistic goals, dealing with problems in a structured way and challenging unhelpful thinking can help you take control.

Changing the way you think

Being aware of your thoughts may help you notice unhelpful thinking patterns. It can then allow you to challenge these.