The Skin You're In: Coping With Body Changes After Cancer

Coping with body changes can be difficult for survivors to accept.
It was Christmas day 2012 and Laura Walker was looking forward to having her niece straighten her waist-length hair before they gathered with family for a holiday celebration. But when she ran her hand through her hair that morning, her heart sank — “my hair was coming out in handfuls,” she says.

So, she tucked her hair into a headband and headed out. “I felt like I was hiding a secret,” she says. “I didn’t want to traumatize my kids. It’s funny how your kids identify you with certain things, and my hair was it for me.”

Walker had begun chemotherapy in early December after being diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer that October. She was just 39 years old. Too young for her first screening mammogram, she’d discovered the tumor on her right breast after noticing a bulge in her skin. She saw her doctor, and things moved quickly from mammogram to ultrasound to biopsy to mastectomy at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas.

Losing her breast made her feel angry and unsure, she says, adding that the experience also made her realize how much she took her body parts for granted. “It really does something to you,” she says. “You don’t feel like a woman.”

But the side effects of chemotherapy also changed the way Walker saw herself.

“I was so bitter about losing my hair,” she says. “I was really overweight at the time and my hair was one of the only things I liked about myself.”

Although body changes — and the experience of having cancer — are different for each individual, body image concerns are a normal part of the cancer experience, says Michelle Cororve Fingeret, Ph.D., a psychologist and associate professor in the Department of Behavioral Science with joint appointments in the Departments of Plastic Surgery and Head and Neck Surgery at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, and who also directs the MD Anderson Body Image Therapy Program.

“Every cancer patient will undergo some sort of change to their body image, whether the change is temporary or permanent,” Fingeret says, adding that the outward visibility of body changes isn’t as big a factor in how a patient feels about those changes as people might think. “The location and size of the disfigurement does not predict someone’s adjustment.”

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