Body changes and cancer

Body image is important to us. It’s how we think and feel about our body and how we think others value us. 

Concerns about body image are common in people affected by cancer. This is because cancer and its treatments can cause changes to how your body looks, works, and feels. These changes can include:

  • hair loss
  • losing a part of your body
  • scarring
  • swelling of a body part
  • having a stoma
  • weight gain or weight loss
  • changes to your speech

Body changes that can’t be seen also cause body image concerns. This includes no longer being able to have children (infertility). Or, it could be late effects of treatment that interfere with how your bowel or bladder works.

It’s important to remember that body image concerns are common after cancer. There are different ways you can get support and ways to improve your body image.

What can help?

There are ways to manage body changes to help you feel better about your appearance. Your doctor or nurse can also give you information and practical advice. They’ll tell you about any possible options, such as reconstructive surgery. They can explain how to manage certain side effects of treatment.

Reconstructive surgery, such as breast reconstruction, can be done immediately or years later. It may be possible to have surgery to improve the appearance of a scar. An artificial body part (prosthesis) that doesn’t fit well or isn’t the right colour can be changed.

There are lots of ways to cover up hair loss. You could wear wigs, hats or scarves. You can draw on your eyebrows or use false eyelashes if needed.

Camouflage make-up can help cover up skin grafts or scars. You can use different clothing to help you cover up or draw attention away from changes.

Managing anxiety and other feelings

Coping with body changes can make you anxious but there are ways to manage this. Talking to family and close friends may help you to put things into perspective and feel less anxious. Information from health professionals may also help to reassure you.

You might find sharing your feelings with people going through a similar experience helpful. This could be through a support group or organisation, or an online forum. Writing down your feelings or setting goals to manage challenges can also be useful.

  • exercises to relax your breathing or your body
  • cutting down caffeine and alcohol
  • getting enough sleep
  • taking regular physical activity
  • using imagery (visualisation) meditation or mindfulness
  • complementary therapies such as massage or aromatherapy

If your body image concerns become overwhelming, it’s important to get help. Your doctor can refer you to a counsellor or psychological therapist. They can help you to understand your feelings better and find ways of coping with them.

Dealing with other people’s reactions

Learning to cope with social situations and other people’s reactions will help build your confidence. You’ll often find people take much less notice of your appearance than you expected.

Being assertive can also help you face worrying situations. It means being able to ask for help and knowing you have the right to be treated with respect.

Social skills can help you to appear more confident and to take control of your situation. You can try to make eye contact, smile, and stand with your shoulders back and head up.

Preparing answers to difficult questions in advance is often helpful. You could give a brief reply and change the subject, or say you don’t want to talk about it. You might prefer to bring up the subject of your body change yourself. It’s up to you how much you want to tell.

If someone is staring or making remarks you can let them know you want it to stop using an assertive look, nod, or asking them to stop. Young children sometimes ask blunt questions but are usually satisfied with a simple explanation.

Developing a positive body image

After treatment, you’ll need time to recover and adjust to any changes. Do things that make you feel good about yourself and let your body know you appreciate it. This could be having a relaxing bath or spending time somewhere peaceful. Other ideas to help improve your confidence include:

  • being kind to yourself and spending time with people who support you
  • writing down things you like about yourself and your appearance
  • seeing yourself as a whole person and not focusing on parts of your body you don’t like
  • replacing negative thoughts about your body with positive thoughts

Making healthy lifestyle choices is a positive way of caring for your body. Being more physically active, healthy eating, not smoking and getting enough sleep all contribute to a healthy lifestyle. They bring different benefits, are good for your general health and can help you to feel more in control.

Last updated:
03 July 2024

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