looking in a mirror

How Cancer Can Affect Your Self Image

Cancer diagnosis and treatment can impact how you view yourself in multiple ways, including physically, emotionally, and socially. These changes can be associated with both positive and negative feelings and your self-image can change throughout the course of treatment and after treatment is completed.

Here are some changes you may face during your cancer treatment and tips on how to get through them.

The Changes and Challenges You May Go Through

Physical changes

  • Scars or other lasting changes from surgery
  • Hair loss and changes to hair (density, texture, color)
  • Weight gain or loss
  • Rash or skin changes
  • Fatigue or energy loss
  • New openings in the body, such as a stoma, port, or trach
  • Changes in bodily functions (infertility, incontinence, swallowing difficulties, lymphedema)

Social changes

  • Temporary or permanent functional or employment changes (losing a sense of who you are if you aren’t able to go to work, care for children or home, or engage hobbies)
  • Dealing with others’ reactions and responses (not as much support as expected or some go above and beyond; help can be appreciated and other times it can feel burdensome).
  • Limitations on where you can go (due to infection risk or similar issues)
  • The stress of meeting new people and having to disclose cancer story

Emotional changes

  • Frustration
  • Anxiety or a lack of control
  • Sadness
  • Anger
  • Guilt
  • Gratitude
  • Hope

Coping with Changes to Your Self Image

All of these changes — physical, social, and emotional – can have an effect on your self-image. Here are some tips on how to cope with some challenges you may be having:

  • Allow time to adjust and acknowledge loss that you are experiencing.
    Cancer dramatically (and suddenly) changes your life and it takes time to adapt. Treat yourself with compassion and acknowledge that this isn’t just a health issue, but something that impacts all areas of your life.
  • Remember that you are so much more than your disease.
    Between attending appointments, taking medications, undergoing testing, and dealing with treatment side effects, it can be easy to feel like cancer has consumed your life. It is important to remember that there is so much more to you than just your cancer. You are still a spouse, parent, child, sibling, teacher, nurse, etc. You are still the guy who liked to play golf or watch movies or the woman who loved to cook or do yoga. Make sure to take time each week to engage in activities that are unrelated to the medical world, and set a time aside each day or week to engage in conversations about something other than your illness.
  • Avoid negative labels.
    Some people feel that they are weak (physically or emotionally) because they cry or feel that they are not coping well. Remember that there is not one right way to cope with this disease. You are doing the best you can in a difficult situation.
  • Be nice to your body.
    Whether you know it or not, most people experience anger towards their body after a cancer diagnosis because it “betrayed” you and you can’t trust it anymore. Some people feel that they can’t recognize themselves in the mirror, or that it is hard to look at pre-cancer photographs because it reminds you how much has changed. Take time to be nice to your body — put on make-up, shave, get dressed up, or treat yourself to a manicure or massage.
  • Get creative.
    If you are unable to participate in some of your former activities or sports, try to find new activities that interest you.
  • Remember that negative experiences aren’t necessarily all bad.
    You will not be happy about having been diagnosed with cancer, but that doesn’t mean that at times you won’t experience positive emotions or positive life changes. Some people find that a diagnosis highlights what they value in life. It can become  the catalyst for living a healthier lifestyle, and teach them a lot about their ability to handle a stressful event. Plus, brings them into contact with new people who they might not have met otherwise. Take time to reflect on the positive as well as the negative.
  • Talk about it.
    Don’t try to handle changes to your self-image alone, especially if negative beliefs about yourself persist or worsen. Talk to your health care provider, loved ones, join a support group, or ask about seeing a therapist.

The Center for Counseling and Cancer Support at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center is a group of psychiatrists that specialize in helping patients and families manage life challenges, including living with cancer. For more information, call 412-623-5888 or visit us online.

Check out our article featuring tips from cancer survivors for more inspiration to help you cope!