Body image and cancer treatment

Treatment for cancer can be invasive. Hearing medical professionals talk about your body using clinical language and ‘treating’ it for this illness can have a big impact on how you feel about yourself. You might start thinking about your body as something that needs to be fixed. You might feel like it’s let you down or failed you in some way.  

Dealing with side effects and changes to your body

Treatment can change your appearance in different ways. It’s hard to feel like yourself when you don’t look like yourself.

Hair might form a big part of your identity so losing it or dealing with changes can feel pretty traumatic. Weight loss or gain is also a common and unwelcome effect. Scarring or the results of life-changing surgery like limb loss can be very difficult to accept, let alone adjust to.

Very few of us feel comfortable standing out in the crowd when it’s not on our terms. It’s important you learn to feel comfortable in your own skin but it might not happen overnight.

Take time out to do things that make you feel good, and will help build up your confidence again. Focus on what’s great and unique about you, especially when you find yourself getting consumed by negative thoughts. It helps to spend time with people who will remind you of all the qualities they love about you too.

Not feeling sexy

Treatment can also affect your sex life, and not in the best way. Emotionally, you might just not feel in the mood. Feeling tired and generally unwell can also decrease your sex drive. In some cases, physical performance can also be impacted by treatment, or it could be painful for you.

Or maybe your partner might worry about getting intimate with you in case they hurt you or just because they think sex isn’t high on your agenda at the moment. That might leave you feeling undesirable and unattractive.

As awkward as it can be, try to speak honestly with each other. This is usually a guaranteed way for you to both get a clearer understanding and find ways to make it better for each other. 

Read more about sex on treatment

How to boost your body confidence and self-esteem

Looking after your body and treating it with kindness doesn’t have to be complicated or time-consuming but it can make a massive difference to how you feel about yourself.

Have nice baths or showers. Cleanse, tone and moisturise. Get a massage or your nails done. Do some exercise when you feel up to it. Let your body know you appreciate it. It deserves love and respect.  

Treat yourself

It’s important to do the things that make you feel good. This could mean arranging a pamper session or an outing with friends, doing a bit of gentle exercise, dedicating some time to gaming, relaxing with a good film, or just a peaceful soak in the tub. 

Shake up your look

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to look good. Cancer can change your appearance but there are ways to take back control and own your new look. You could experiment with makeup trends, try out a different hairstyle or wig, design a tattoo to enhance or hide a scar, or treat yourself to some skincare products. Make sure whatever you decide to do makes you feel empowered and confident.

It’s worth checking out  Look Good Feel Better  – the organisation has resources and runs workshops to help women with cancer reclaim their womanhood, however they choose to define it. 

Be kind to your mind

You can make changes to your appearance but the most important thing is to accept yourself as you are, inside and out. This can be tricky if you think you don’t fit the mould the world says you should. But remember – there’s no such thing as ‘perfect’ – despite what it may look like on Snapchat and Insta.   

Try out a bit of mindfulness or yoga. These are both great ways of reconnecting with your body. Or, look up some affirmations about body confidence to remind yourself how amazing your body is and to appreciate what it can do. Affirmations are statements that help change your thought process. Saying them to yourself might feel a bit weird but they can be surprisingly powerful and help you shift your thinking in a more positive direction. Stick them up somewhere handy and read them to yourself when you’re feeling low. Try saying: 

“I ACCEPT MY BODY THE WAY IT IS”  or, “I LOVE MY BODY AND I LOVE MYSELF” 

Invest in your wellbeing

Diet and exercise can make a big difference in how you feel on and after treatment. Be mindful of what you’re putting in your body and try to eat a balanced diet with plenty of fruit and veg. Exercising is a great way to build up your fitness and activities like yoga and meditation can help you to feel a bit brighter in yourself. If you’re finishing treatment, you might want to get back into something you enjoyed before. 

Ask for help!

We might sound like a broken record but there are so many people and organisations that can offer you support. It’s particularly important if you’re feeling anxious or depressed to talk to someone. They might be able to help you make positive changes so you can feel better about yourself.

This list of organisations should help find the ones that are right for you. 

Your fertility

If you know, or suspect, that your treatment will affect your ability to have children, that can be a massive thing to deal with. It’s understandable to feel devastated and that your body has let you down. It’s important that you talk to someone about how you feel.

Read more about your fertility

You might also want to read

Madison’s story – I thought breast cancer was something old people got

Madison Joyce was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer aged 22. Now 25, she is cancer-free, and in May 2017 came second in the final...

Read more about Madison’s story – I thought breast cancer was something old people got
Madison, after she lost her hair

Contacts for your emotions and mental health

Useful organisations, resources, apps and communities for emotional and mental health support.

Read more about Contacts for your emotions and mental health
A teenager with cancer looks out of a window

How bad will treatment make me feel?

Everyone reacts differently to treatment. Here are ways to combat any side effects.

Read more about How bad will treatment make me feel?
A teenager with cancer lies in hospital with a woolly hat pulled down over her face