Cancer changes everything about one’s self-image, but that doesn’t mean it is a negative outcome.
BY Amansa Shlosberg and A.J. Cincotta-Eichenfield, LMSW
A cancer diagnosis can
cause stark transitions in self-image, sense of self and identity, as both the illness and treatment can significantly alter a person’s body.
As cancer treatment begins, a person’s body may begin to look and feel different, which can impact self-image and sense of self. Treatments can also bring physical scars, hair loss, weight changes, loss of limbs or organs, the need for an ostomy, reduced fertility or other changes, all of which impact a person’s physical relationship with their body and have lasting social and emotional impacts.
CANCER ALTERS SENSE OF SELF
Because sense of self plays a significant role in how we interact with the world and relate to others, people who experience physical changes as a result of cancer may not feel comfortable doing things they wouldn’t have given a second thought to before, such as meeting new people or going out in public. For those who’ve experienced physical changes, it’s important to talk about these feelings, understand that they’re normal and recognize that it takes time to emotionally adjust to the new physical realities.
Managing emotional concerns related to self-image is an ongoing process. People with cancer must acknowledge what happened to them and how it affects their day to day. This requires navigating a sense of emotional and physical loss and confronting how they see them- selves — and how they think the world may see them too.
In an episode of “Cancer Out Loud: The CancerCare
Podcast,” Bianca, a cancer survivor, said, “It doesn’t matter the age, just the idea that you are removing your entire breast. I lost everything. ... You don’t feel beautiful.” Bianca later related living with physical changes like hair loss to playing a role as an actress: “I’m saying to myself, ‘This is a part, and I’m playing this part until I finish chemo. I’m beautiful in my own way.’”
FINDING SUPPORT AND STRENGTH AFTER CANCER
Because physical changes can be reminders of the disease and its treatments, they can be difficult to reconcile with how someone previously viewed themselves. Individual counseling can help survivors process the uniquely personal impact of cancer and transition to a new physical reality by offering a safe, supportive and uncensored environment to express thoughts and feelings.
Oncology social workers, counselors, therapists or supportive professionals may be able to share strategies for practicing mindfulness, self-care and kindness amidst this emotionally turbulent experience. Additionally, joining a support group — and connecting with people facing similar challenges — can also help lessen feelings of loneliness and isolation. As much as friends and family want to understand, they often can’t relate. Support groups are a place where survivors can express their fears, feelings and experiences with other people who truly understand because they’re living with cancer, too.
Although physical changes can serve as reminders of negative and painful memories, they can also be symbols of strength.
“When you are pale yellow and your skin is totally different, it’s harder to feel beautiful,” said Bianca. “(Cancer helped me realize that) it’s all (about) the heart. I feel beautiful in a different way. It’s not the outside beauty. The beauty is inside us — and now I’m a strong believer of this.”