Cancer and Body Image - Livestrong
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Body Image

You may experience temporary or permanent physical changes in your body as a result of cancer treatment. The way you feel and think about your body may also change. Understanding how cancer can affect your body image can help you feel confident as you experience and manage changes in your body.

A middle-aged woman with a shaved head applying lipstick in the mirror

Your body image is what you believe about your appearance, even though other people might see you differently. A poor body image may cause you to feel ashamed, self-conscious and anxious about your body. However, it’s important to remember that your body is only one part of who you are as a whole person. If you focus only on what your body looks like, you might overlook the strength of your personality, your interest in life and the talents you bring to many areas of your life.

How Body Image Works

Both permanent and temporary physical changes may or may not be visible to other people. When physical changes aren’t visible to others, you may not notice any changes in how you feel about your body. However, even these changes can affect you because body image relates to how you feel about your body, not how it actually looks to others.

Temporary body changes:

  • Hair loss.
  • Weight loss.
  • Weight gain.

Permanent body changes:

  • Amputations, such as, limbs or mastectomies where prostheses can be fitted.
  • Permanent stomas, e.g. colostomy or ileostomy (an opening on the abdomen created surgically to empty contents of bowel into a bag).
  • Infertility.
  • Scars from surgery or tattoo markings from radiation fields.

Even if you don’t experience any physical changes from cancer, you might still feel like others see you differently. You may think they don’t understand you or can’t relate to you now. These feelings of insecurity and uncertainty may affect your body image, even if you look exactly like you did before cancer.

Check for Signs of Poor Body Image

  • You don’t want to leave your house because you don’t want people to see you.
  • You don’t want to date or meet new people.
  • You shy away from intimacy or sex with your current partner.
  • You are afraid to undress in front of your spouse.
  • You won’t let your partner see your scars.
  • You are embarrassed because you lost or gained weight.
  • You feel ashamed for having cancer.
  • You are unable to accept yourself for who you are now.

Adjusting to Body Changes

Cancer and treatment affect people differently and so do physical changes. Sometimes physical changes caused by cancer prevent you from working or doing things you used to enjoy before cancer. This can be very difficult to accept. Even small changes in your body may seem overwhelming.
Others may react—positively or negatively–to your physical changes. This can affect your body image. Working to keep a strong, positive body image can help you worry less about how other people’s reactions.

Many cancer survivors want their lives to return to normal. However, permanent physical changes can seem like constant reminders that life is different. You may worry that life will never be normal again. All these things can affect how well you feel about yourself and your body. Consider giving yourself time to adjust to changes in your body or changes in how you feel about yourself. In time, your body image can improve as you start to adjust to life after cancer.

  • Wear clothes that make you feel good.
  • Spend time with people who make you feel good about yourself and accept you as you are.
  • Check out Look Good Feel Better, a charity dedicated to improving the confidence and self-esteem of cancer patients.
  • Talk to others who have had similar struggles with their body image.
  • Seek out professional counseling.
  • Include a healthy balance of exercise and good nutrition.

How to Improve Your Body Image

Doing your best to remain positive and recognize your strengths beyond your physical appearance can help improve your body image.

  • Ask your health care team for suggestions. Some cancer programs offer support groups right in the clinic or hospital.
  • Call a nearby cancer center or university hospital and ask about support groups.
  • Contact the American Cancer Society at or call (800) 227-2345 and request a list of support groups and cancer centers in your area.

Support groups provide a safe environment to share experiences with other survivors, learn new ways to handle difficult situations and talk about emotions. You’ll see different styles of adjusting to body changes. Everyone deal with changes in body image in their own way. It’s a personal experience. However, you’ll learn some general approaches that may help you improve your body image and begin to better understand your body after cancer.

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