Although patients with cancer may feel both grateful and grief towards their bodies, one expert emphasizes how important seeking support from a professional can be throughout this process.
Some physical changes that patients undergo throughout their cancer journey are visible like hair loss during chemotherapy, for example, which are often expected by both patients and the people around them. But the physical impacts of cancer can go beyond this and impact a patient’s perception of themselves.
“We can think of the physical changes in regards to their body image, for example, if a woman has a mastectomy or double mastectomy, or even fatigue, weight loss or those things that maybe aren’t even as visible to others but can impact (a patient’s) self perception, which ultimately impacts their body image,” said Stephanie B. Broussard, director of social work and palliative care at Texas Oncology, in an interview with CURE®.
A recent survey conducted by Texas Oncology assessed the impact of body image and self perception in 150 current and former patients with cancer.
“I think that's one of the things that the survey found was that we had respondents that were really shocked by the physical impact and the side effects of cancer in regards to the long-term impact on their life and perception, which ultimately impacted their emotional well being,” Broussard said.
For example, 45% of patients who completed the survey said they were
grateful for their body’s persistence throughout cancer treatment. But Broussard said it is normal for patients to sometimes feel uncertain about their bodies.
“We have to normalize the ambivalence,” she said. “That’s something we do a lot, especially in counseling and support. We normalize the fact that two things can be true; I can be extremely grateful that my body has persevered through treatment, and I am here on the other side, but I could also be grieving the experiences and the moments that I lost, or the life as I knew it.”
In addition, 34% of patients with cancer reported that they thought the changes in how they view their body would be permanent. Broussard added that body image should also include how patient’s body functions.
“For example, if they’re experiencing neuropathy, some of our patients will have neuropathy for the rest of their life as a result of treatment. So (some patients may) have a physical decline, maybe forever, or have adjustments that will need to be made. And as a result, those things are lasting and impactful.”
Regardless of whether a patient has temporary or permanent effects from cancer treatment, especially pertaining to their body image and self perception, Broussard emphasized the importance of support.
“Support is really important to help people grieve the loss in regards to their body or what they have known their body to be capable of, sometimes (make) amends with their body, learn to forgive their body and trust it when it may have failed them,” she explained. “Their perception is that it has failed them, and so for some (patients), that perspective is long lasting.”
Sometimes families of the patients may not understand their adjustment to “a new normal” after cancer treatment, Broussard added.
“Sometimes, their families aren’t aware, they’re like, ‘You should just be happy. You beat it. Why are you not ecstatic,’” she said. “It’s also the grief that comes and that emotional wear and tear is real because it has impacted your life. Being diagnosed with cancer can be (traumatic), so we have to see it as such.”
Broussard advised caregivers to allow patients to dictate what support looks like for them, as sometimes they may not know what’s best for themselves.
“Giving them the grace and freedom to say, ‘I don’t know, but I just need you,’ and not overtaking their voice, allowing them to have the autonomy to speak for themselves when they can, but also being willing to fill in some of those gaps,” she said.
With regards to seeking professional support to help cope with mental or physical side effects of cancer, one third of patients from the survey reported that they sought help from a professional. In addition, 59% of respondents said that they were somewhat or very hesitant to seek out support services.
“We have to normalize just as a community and as a society that having emotional support from a professional is really important, and it doesn’t mean you’re broken,” Broussard explained. “The reality is, is that if you're experiencing cancer, you've experienced a life-altering event. And having someone there that is present that can help you sort through and process your feelings that's not a family member, where you have to feel like you have to hide things or you feel like you can't be 100% honest about your fears or concerns, is really important.
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