A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Maintaining a positive body image during cancer

Woman hiking

There’s no doubt about it: Cancer can erode your positive body image. It can make you more self-conscious about your looks so that you don’t really recognize your own reflection. It can make you view your body as the enemy.

Many survivors experience physical changes in their bodies as a result of cancer or its treatment. Everyone reacts to physical changes in a different way. Give yourself time to grieve physical losses and psychological challenges and to adjust to your new body.

Striving for a strong, positive body image

Body image is how you feel about your own appearance. Cancer can affect your body image by damaging how your body functions. If those changes make you feel less confident about your physical appearance, remember that your body is only one part of who you are as a whole person. Don’t overlook the strength of your personality, your interest in life and the talents you bring to your life, family and community. Cancer does not take these things away from you.

Your body image can be affected by how others react to you, if they notice physical changes. Not everyone knows how to react to people who have had physical changes from cancer. Be prepared for questions or comments by thinking about how you will respond to them. If you prefer not to talk about it, just tell your friends or family it’s a private matter.

Having a strong, positive body image may help you worry less about how other people react to your physical appearance.

Some cancer survivors describe positive changes in body image. For example, you may appreciate the resilience of your body or discover that issues of weight or body shape matter less. Some cancer survivors are inspired to treat their body well by eating healthier foods and exercising. Doing your best to remain positive and recognize your strengths beyond your physical appearance may decrease chances of having a poor body image.

Dealing with body image changes

All cancer survivors deal with changes in body image in their own way. It is a personal experience. A few suggestions may help you better understand your body and regain a positive body image:

  • Talk to other survivors who have had similar struggles with their body image. Support groups are a good way to share experiences, learn new ways to handle difficult situations and discuss emotions.
  • Dress in clothing that makes you feel good.
  • Spend time with people who make you feel good and who accept you as you are.
  • Attend a Look Good…Feel Better program through the American Cancer Society.
  • Take care of your body with exercise, good nutrition and adequate sleep. Ask your health care team for ways to improve your diet and start an exercise program that meets your recovery needs.
  • Learn a new physical skill. (Check with your doctor first regarding appropriate activities.) Discovering an emerging talent or strength can help you regain confidence.

If concerns about your physical appearance become overwhelming, talk with your health care team about a referral to a therapist who works with cancer survivors. If insecurity is causing you to avoid people and situations you used to enjoy, or causing you anxiety, depression, fear and uncertainty, help is available. A referral to a rehabilitation specialist may help manage any physical limitations.

Your body may look and feel different, but you are still the same person inside.

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