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Cancer Care & Body Image

  • 10.03.2018

There’s a lot to deal with when managing a cancer diagnosis and treatment, and physical changes to our bodies can be significant. Some people lose or gain weight, while others might lose their hair. There will most likely be surgery scars, and rashes can be caused by drug therapies. And some patients will physically lose parts of their bodies. These changes often affect self-esteem as we become accustomed to our new realities.

Jeanmarie was diagnosed with cancer of the uterine muscle in her late 20s, though she didn’t get a hysterectomy until she was 47. Now, 30 years after that initial diagnosis, she says she remembers the treatment leaving her feeling older than her years. “I couldn’t stand being in my skin,” she shares. “My face turned gray, my eyes looked dead to me and I lost my hair.” A former model, she grew even thinner than she had been. “My head looked too big on my body and it was hard for me to look at myself in the mirror.”

Even though she had made a career out of her looks, she says she didn’t realize how much they mattered to her until they changed so drastically. In order to feel better, she scheduled regular facials and massages for the times when her skin didn’t make her too uncomfortable to have them.

The changes are real and everyone will deal with them differently. Below is a list of options to consider. If you have tried something else that worked for you, please let us know so we can share your solutions with other patients.

Dealing with body image issues 

Support groups: Julie assembled a personal support group when she was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer a few years ago. She made sure to include at least one person from each aspect of her life: family, friends, work and professional organizations. In this way, she was able to share everything with her closest confidantes and they could share what was appropriate with the group they represented. She says this kept her positive and upbeat through her diagnosis, treatment and to this day, when she has been declared cancer-free.

In addition to your friends and family, there are numerous established support groups. Jeanmarie joined a circle of fellow cancer survivors at her hospital, which she says validated her in many ways. “It was just really helpful, being able to talk to people going through the same types of things,” she says. 

          Read: Cancer Support

Counseling: We are big fans of counseling. You have a lot going on, we’re guessing even before the cancer diagnosis. Having someone to talk through these issues with is hugely important.

Depending on what you’re looking for, you might consider individual, couples/family or group counseling. Get a referral from someone you trust, ideally someone who has been through a similarly life-changing event. Insurance typically covers counseling, but be sure to get a list of covered professionals from them.

          Read: How a journal can help you through cancer

Stay Active: We’ve talked before about the importance of staying active and fit, as it both lowers cancer risk and helps with recovery, but it can also help with the way you view yourself. The busier we are, the less time we have to focus on any perceived negatives in our body. And spending active time with friends can also help you focus on something besides the cancer. 

          Read: Using technology to stay active and healthy

Try Something New

If your body is changing on you, this is the perfect time to try out a new style. If chemotherapy has caused hair loss, experiment with different styles of wigs. Who knows? You might even find something you like better than what you’ve been used to.

Julie says her hair fell out on Valentine’s Day so she made an emergency trip to the wig shop. She was self-conscious showing up at work with new hair, but she says everyone was accepting. Though she got used to it, she says the wigs were too hot during the summer months, so she discovered the fun of accessorizing with scarves, something she still does even now that her hair has grown back in.

If you’ve lost or gained weight, you’ll need to get new clothes, so why not try something different? Deanna lost 70 pounds when she was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2016, mostly because it upset her stomach so much she wasn’t able to keep anything down. Between surgery and radiation, she wasn’t able to eat solid foods for six months. “The lucky thing is that I had the 70 pounds to lose,” she says.

She adds that the weight loss made her feel like a different person, so once she recovered from the cancer, she worked to gain enough back to be healthy, but not enough to become heavy again. “Now I pay very close attention to what I eat and how I eat,” she says, adding that she’s enjoying experimenting with new clothing styles.

If you’re experiencing a new sized you, you don’t have to spend a ton of money on clothes, as you can often find new styles at garage sales or thrift stores. Or have a clothing swap party with your friends. Everyone has something they’re ready to trade away.

Professional makeup artist and microblading specialist Edin Carpenter has worked with cancer patients for the last nine years. She says the most important thing is to be willing to take care of yourself. “They feel sick and withdrawn and it’s easy to fall into a slump and neglect their beauty routine all together,” she shares. “But it’s really important to continue to take care of yourself, for self-esteem but also because your body needs the extra attention when you’re going through treatment.”

She recommends sticking to all-natural products, so you’re not adding in any additional chemicals. She uses Vintner’s Daughter serum for skin, morning and night. “It’s made up of botanicals with no questionable ingredients,” she says, adding that sunscreen is another important element, with her favorite brand being Ulta. “Sometimes people think they already have cancer so they don’t have to worry about this anymore, but you’re on the road to recovery so you have to continue taking care of yourself.”

Jane Iredale mineral-based foundation is another of Edin’s recommendations. “It’s all natural and you can put it on top of the sunscreen to help get rid of any discoloration,” she says. “Then use a little blush just to brighten up the apples of your cheeks.”

Eyelashes and brows can be tricky as chemo may have may made them non-existent. Microblading is a semi-permanent tattooing technique that creates hair like strokes to fill in sparse or thinning brows, making it one option for people who have lost their eyebrows. “And if they’re not quite ready to make the leap into semi-permanent makeup, Dior makes a beautiful pencil that can be used until the brows start to grow naturally,” Edin says.

“When they’re ready, there are serums they can use to help them grow their eyelashes and brows faster,” Edin says, adding that if they’re planning a special night out, fake lashes can be a great addition. “They can be a bit tricky to apply though, so maybe get a friend to help you out.”

She says a nice bright lip gloss will finish up their look, again choosing a natural product like Burt’s Bees.

Consider a tattoo

As long as you’re changing it up, you might consider a tattoo. Instead of, or sometimes in addition to, reconstructive surgery after a mastectomy, some women are opting for decorative tattoos for scar coverage and nipple replacement. This can be an interesting way to own your body again, in a way that makes the most sense for you.

Jane shares that she got a tattoo of a water color waterlily after her mastectomy. “I wanted to see beautiful art every time I looked in the mirror, rather than a scar, as a reminder that I am a breast cancer survivor,” she says. She chose the waterlily as it is the flower for those born in July, the birth month of both of her children and her grandbaby. “They are now near and dear to my heart physically, as well as emotionally,” she says.

If you choose this route, you’ll want to put a lot of thought into it since it will be with you for the rest of your life. This Pinterest board has many ideas to consider.

Is reconstructive surgery an option?

Reconstructive Surgery can often be done at the same time as the surgery to remove the cancer. Since this is considered medical, and not cosmetic, most insurance companies will cover it. The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) shares what you need to know to make an informed decision about reconstructive surgery, as the type of reconstructive surgery that is right for you depends on several factors:

  • The location and severity of the damage
  • Prior surgeries
  • Your personal preferences
  • Need for further cancer treatment
  • Your overall health and other medical conditions

As with anything, this decision is different for everyone and there is no right answer. Mercedes, who has recovered from stage 3 breast cancer, says she probably would have gotten a breast implant if she was younger, but now, in her 50s, she’s not sure. “I feel like I should care, but I don’t,” she says. “I would like symmetry, but I don’t like elective surgery and poking a hole in my body for no reason.”

Though changes to the body can be overwhelming, it’s important to remember that you’re still you, regardless of how your body looks.

For more resources and information about cancer prevention and treatment approaches, browse our blog. For current cancer-related health news delivered to your inbox, subscribe to Sierra Nevada Cancer Center’s Newsletter.

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