Cancer and Body Image

Cancer treatment can be difficult on the body, both internally and externally. Patients face weight gain, hair loss, scars from surgery, and changes in sexual function. Some patients may feel guilty when they feel bad about their image, but it’s only natural to feel frustrated or upset about the physical changes you undergo. We spoke to a group of women about how breast cancer affected their body image.

Brittany: Diagnosed at 31 and being newlywed, I greatly struggled with the fact that I would lose both of my breasts and my hair before my 3rd anniversary with my husband. I also work at a well-known lingerie store…measuring for bras, helping women pick out lingerie, and trying to make them feel confident while I was masking my own insecurities is my own personal hell.

Lori: Diagnosed in December and haven’t let my husband touch me since. I’m struggling to ever look at myself in the mirror. I’m even struggling to put creams on and I just completed my 5th radiation out of 30. Life has forever changed.

Denise: I’m 36. I was ok losing my hair, brows, lashes, even gaining a few pounds. What I’ve been struggling with is after my double mastectomy and expanders I had three weeks ago. I look like Frankenstein with small lopsided expanders. I know it’s not permanently going to look like this but I cry every time I’m naked looking in the mirror like “this is the new me.” My clothes don’t fit right and if they fit they don’t look good. Makes me not want to go out in public.

Luz: Diagnosed back In December I’m 48 years old, my husband it’s 64. Had a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction, fat grafting and nipple reconstruction (the last surgery was 2 weeks ago) I haven’t let my husband see me without a bra since my first surgery 8 months ago. I still struggle with my image. I am waiting to see how my breasts look, I don’t want any more surgeries but I want to be able to look at the mirror, I might seem shallow…But to me it’s very important to look good, not for my husband, but for me.Stephanie: I had bariatric surgery before my breast cancer was found. I was losing weight and excited about my figure getting slimmer. Then I lost my breasts. It’s been really tough. One of the harder things is that i keep forgetting they’re gone! I went to look at a rash I had, but that skin was removed in the mastectomy. My husband forgets too! He’ll roll over in bed and go to cup a breast, and tries to recover because he worries about hurting me physically or emotionally. Clothes don’t fit right. Things gap and sit too low. I keep reminding myself, and so does my husband, that it’s not the “package.” It’s what’s inside. But looking at those ghastly wounds, sometimes it’s hard to remember.

Sujata: I was diagnosed in 2018 at 43. I knew hair loss was temporary, but the re-growth is thinner. I had a bilateral mastectomy, but didn’t really process what that would be like until they were gone. I was too overwhelmed by the fear of cancer and recurrence. I changed my mind about reconstruction and explanted earlier this year. I’m generally happy with my decision, but I miss my natural breasts. My scars aren’t pretty and there’s a bit of concavity. My husband has been supportive, but I get self conscious at times. This past week I went to a school meeting (a new school for my child). I think I was more nervous than my child! These people didn’t know my story. I decided to wear a pink ribbon pin on my shirt collar. I felt the need to explain my lack of breasts, and hoped the pin would be convey the message. I remind myself that I’m alive and in remission, but I do miss the old me.

Debbie: I’ve had breast cancer twice. Both times I accepted it as a problem to be solved. So I solved it.  I’m a very pragmatic person and deal with things head on. I always have a plan. And I work my plan.  I never had body issue problems after DMX. I spent most of my adult life hating my boobs and trying to hide them as they were an embarrassment. Very large and the rest of me is very small.  I can now wear all those cute tops I used to envy on other women. Everything fits now. I did lumpectomy the first time and my cancer came back. So I opted for the DMX with no reconstruction the second time and I am loving the new me.  I have not had one regret.  Except I wish I had DMX the first time. I am living Flat and Fabulous.

Tracy: I absolutely hate the way I look. But to be honest, I wasn’t ok with my looks before. My hair is coming back gray, curly and thinner on top. My eyelashes are just coming back and my eyebrows still aren’t coming back. I gained 40 lbs during chemo. I have 13 scars on my torso. I have no nipples and chemo aged me at least 10 years. I have wrinkles I never had before. I still have to have my final recon surgery. I hate looking at myself and I will not look at my body at all anymore. I am depressed and have anxiety and so many side effects from the chemo and now from Arimidex. People say well at least you’re alive. And then I think, is this really living? I am 51 and I don’t look forward to anything. Every single day is a struggle.Kris: Not worried about it! Having twins at 40 was pretty much the end of caring what I look like. I only want to stay alive.

How do you get help when, in addition to dealing with treatments, just the way you look is causing you depression or anxiety? Talk to you doctor. Your hospital may have a program to help you. MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston has a Body Image Therapy Service which helps patients with this very issue. Cancer Treatment Centers of America have Mind-Body support options. Seeing a licensed therapist can help you process what is happening to your body. Just remember you are not alone, and allow yourself to grieve the changes in your body. It’s neither selfish nor petty to be upset over such drastic changes. Taking an active role in your mental health is just as important as the treatment for your physical health.