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Adapting to Body Changes After Cancer

The concept of body image is comprised of feelings and thoughts about your body and its functioning. It’s not just about physical appearance but is also tied to your sense of self, identity and role within your family, community and society.  

Body image is relevant to everyone, not just those living with cancer. Everyone has thoughts and feelings about their bodies which shape how we see ourselves in the world. Body image concerns are common among people going through cancer treatment and is an important component of one’s overall quality of life.  

Cancer and body image

How you feel about your body can change over time. Age and various life experiences will naturally change our bodies. 

Alterations to the body from a cancer diagnosis can include temporary hair loss and possible permanent scarring. Body changes that may not be obvious to the outside world can be particularly distressing for you. For this reason, you may need to communicate more directly how you are feeling and the types of activities in which you feel comfortable engaging.    

Identity and body image

Given cancer’s impact on the body, you may not be able to perform certain tasks as easily as you were able to prior to the diagnosis. With aging there is an expected and sometimes gradual change in the body’s physical capabilities. However, with a cancer diagnosis, some of the changes that the body experiences may feel sudden. These changes, and potential sense of loss over your ability to perform certain tasks, can mark a shift in your view of yourself.  

It may be helpful to remain open to the possibility of opportunities that may exist through a changed body. Consider finding pleasure in activities that you hadn’t considered prior to cancer treatment.  

Emotional responses to body concerns

When there are unwelcome changes to the body, it is natural to experience feelings of sadness, grief, loss and even shame and embarrassment. This unpleasant and sometimes negative view of your body can influence how you interact with others such as refraining from seeing friends or avoiding sexual contact with your partner. It is important to be mindful of how you are feeling and to observe if and how some of your behaviors have shifted. Some questions to keep in mind include: 

  • How much time do you think about your body? Are these helpful or unhelpful thoughts? 

  • How does sadness or fear about your body impact how you are living right now? 

  • How have body image concerns impacted your ability to relate to intimate partners, friends, family, and colleagues? 

Consider taking a lens of gratitude and compassion towards your body and keep in mind all that it has been through. Make a concerted effort to focus on aspects of your body that you appreciate. It may be helpful to record these thoughts in a journal or on your phone and review them on a consistent basis. 

Sexual function, intimacy, and body image

Cancer can create barriers to both emotional and physical intimacy. Some side effects of cancer treatment can result in changes to sexual function and intimacy. For men, issues with erectile function and ability to orgasm can result from certain cancer treatments. Some treatments can make women feel uncomfortable and be painful to engage in certain sexual behaviors.  

Changes in weight, the presence of surgical scars, and hair loss during cancer treatment can impact how you relate to others physically and emotionally. You may feel uncomfortable bringing up sex-related concerns, especially if your medical team has not addressed this topic during your cancer treatment. Your sexual wellbeing is an important component to your overall wellbeing and to your quality of life. You can certainly discuss this topic with your medical team. It can also be helpful to work with a mental health therapist to process your thoughts and feelings about sexual side effects of cancer as well as to learn about strategies for coping.  

While changes to your body can represent a loss and present certain challenges to how you feel about yourself sexually, try to keep an open mind about the potential for growth. Perhaps think about this time as an opportunity to become more familiar with your body and to experiment with what feels pleasurable to you? If you are in a partnered relationship, it is possible that you and your partner may come to appreciate each other in new ways during treatment.  

Strategies for coping with body image concerns

You have control over how you cope with your changing body. There are strategies you can use that enable you to feel more connected to your body and promote a sense of control over your cancer experience:    

  • Gather information about the impact of treatment on the body. Communicate all your questions and concerns — both big and small — to the medical team so they can provide you with a comprehensive understanding and sense of preparedness. 

  • Connect with others who have a similar cancer diagnosis or who have undergone the same type of treatment as it may increase your awareness and knowledge of ways others have navigated body image-related concerns.  

  • Allow yourself time to grieve the changes your body is going through, honor your feelings and try not to be critical or judgmental about them. 

  • Your body and health-related matters are personal and private to you. Prepare yourself for the likely reality that others may notice or remark upon your changing body. In these moments, it’s important to remind yourself that you cannot control how others behave, you can only control how you wish to respond.  

  • Develop a “script” of what you might wish to communicate about your cancer experience with others, adapting it based on the particular social situations. For more information about scripts, schedule a visit with an Iris mental health therapist.

  • Try to keep an open mind and a sense of curiosity about your body and its abilities. While how you appear and function may have changed in certain ways, consider what your body has been through and what it is doing for you now. 

For more information about these strategies plus more, check out our Iris Mini, Navigating body image and others' perceptions. And for individualized help with body image concerns schedule a visit with an Iris mental health therapist and begin talking through new coping skills.

Want to read more about body image after a cancer diagnosis? Here are some top resource picks from the Iris team:

This article meets Iris standards for medical accuracy. It has been fact-checked by the Iris Clinical Editorial Board, our team of oncology experts who ensure that the content is evidence based and up to date. The Iris Clinical Editorial Board includes board-certified oncologists and pharmacists, psychologists, advanced practice providers, licensed clinical social workers, oncology-certified nurses, and dietitians.