Cancer and treatments can cause changes to your body. These can affect how you think and feel about your body.
Body image is the picture in our mind of how our body looks and works. It is how we think and feel about our bodies and how we believe others see us.
Body image is important as it can be linked to feelings of self-worth.
Body image concerns are different for everyone. Some people may feel uncomfortable or unhappy about their bodies. Others may feel anxious and avoid going out or socialising. Concerns about your body may 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 its treatments can change your body and appearance. Some treatments may affect your skin, nails and hair. Other treatments may affect how a part of your body works.
Changes to your body may be temporary or permanent. They include changes that can be seen by others, such as hair loss or weight gain. They also include changes that are not obviously visible to others. For example, treatment effects such as infertility can also affect your body image and make you feel vulnerable about your body.
People of any age or gender and with any type of cancer can have body image concerns.
Common visible changes include the following:
- Hair loss — you may lose some or all the hair from your head and sometimes your eyebrows, eyelashes and body hair.
- Skin and nail changes.
- Scarring or losing a part of your body from surgery.
- Losing weight or putting on weight.
- Lymphoedema — swelling of an arm, leg or other part of the body.
- 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 having an early menopause.
- Reduced sex drive or difficulties having sex.
- Feeling tired and weak or unable to do activities you did before treatment.
- Late treatment effects that change the way your bladder or bowel work.
- Changes in sensation. For example, numbness in part of your body after surgery, or in your hands and feet after chemotherapy (peripheral neuropathy).
If you have visible changes to your appearance, you may find that some people look at you for longer. Usually this is because they are curious and not because they want to upset you.
Learning how to cope in advance with social situations will build up your confidence. This will help you gradually get back to things you did before, such as work, sports or hobbies.
We have more information on managing other people’s reactions to changes in your appearance. This includes suggestions for things you can say.
There are ways to help you to manage your body changes and to help improve your confidence.
Your healthcare team can help you with this. They can give you support and also tell you about other sources of help.
You may want to talk to a Boots Macmillan Beauty Advisor about managing some of the changes to your appearance. These advisors are specially trained by Macmillan and Boots. They give you face-to-face advice about caring for your skin, nails and hair during treatment.
Physical and emotional changes after cancer and its treatment may affect your sexual confidence or ability to have sex. Concerns about your sex life and intimate relationships are normal.
If you are in a relationship, you may worry your partner will compare things to how they were before. Or you may worry they no longer find you attractive. But how attractive they find you is linked to different things, not to how a part of your body looks. Talking openly with each other can have a positive effect on your relationship.
If you are not in a relationship, you may worry how a new partner might react to your body changes. Many people with cancer go on to have close and intimate relationships in the future.
You usually need time to recover and adapt to body changes before you feel comfortable about having sex. How long this takes depends on the treatment you had and what feels right for you and your partner.
You will need time to recover from treatment and to adapt to body changes, especially if they are more permanent.
Even if your body looks or feels different, you can feel proud about it getting you through treatment. You may find that you appreciate what it does for you every day.
Take time out regularly to do nice things for yourself. This could just be having a relaxing bath, going for a massage, or spending time somewhere you find peaceful.
Eating healthily, getting enough sleep and being more physically active are ways of taking care of your body.
Giving up smoking and not drinking more than recommended levels are also important.
These are positive ways of looking after your body. They may help you feel more in control and improve your body image.