Cancer and body image – the impact of the Big C

If you have, or are in recovery from cancer, you may also struggle with the way you feel about your body.

In this post, I’m exploring how cancer diagnosis and treatment can impact body image, and what you can do to improve your body image if you’re living with cancer and/or a very altered body.

Listen or read below:

Cancer and body image

I’m seeing more women receiving treatment for, or in recovery from cancer, who are struggling with their body image.

And with one in two people in the UK expected to be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime (according to Cancer Research UK), it’s a sad reality that I’ll be working with even more women struggling with cancer and body image.

But despite the sad prevalence of cancer diagnosis, cancer and body image isn’t something that is talked about widely.

So, I want to shine a light on this topic to help those struggling with cancer and body image feel less alone, and give hope of feeling better in your body.

In this post, I…

  • Explore the impact of cancer on body image
  • Validate how you’re currently feeling about your body.
  • Explain why positivity can be toxic, invalidating, and unhelpful!

And in How to feel better about your body after cancer, I share more about what you can do to feel better in your body instead.

How cancer affects body image

There are four main factors that have an impact on your body image (which is your perception of your body – how you think and feel about it – and the way you behave because of your perception): culture, interpersonal relationships, body changes/transitions and personality traits.

Changes to the body such as injury, illness, or pregnancy and menopause can all affect your perception of your body.

Recent statistics suggest that more than 50% of patients suffer with their body image at some point on their cancer journey. So, what does this look like?

Some of the things the women I work with have experienced include:

  • Loss of confidence in their body and its abilities.
  • The belief that their body has “let them down”.
  • The sense that their body is weak or vulnerable.
  • Feeling their body is misshapen or mutilated.
  • Loss of femininity, particularly if they’ve had breasts removed.
  • Difficulties being intimate, not wanting their partner to see their body for fear they will find it unattractive.
  • Wanting to hide their body – using clothes as armour.
  • Feeling like they are being judged for their changed body.
  • Comparing themselves to others more than before.
  • Feeling that if they were ‘thinner’ or ‘healthier’, they wouldn’t have cancer.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of how you might be feeling. Whatever you’re experiencing is valid.

How are you feeling?

I should be grateful to be alive

The women I work with find it difficult to accept the body they’re in now. This is particularly true if they’ve had surgery that has altered the way their body looks.

A common struggle is the belief they should be ‘grateful’ to be alive. They feel they shouldn’t worry about the negative thoughts and feelings they’re having about their altered body.

This struggle is compounded when well-meaning family and friends say there are more important things to worry about than the way they feel about their body.

But what these women are struggling with is valid.

It’s body grief – grieving the loss of the body they no longer have, and all the things they believed they could be, have or do with that body.

This is a very real form of grief, and denying its existence isn’t helpful.

When positivity is toxic

Telling a women to focus on gratitude she’s alive and not allowing space for body grief is toxic body positivity.

While I’m for healthy, balanced thinking, positive thinking that denies reality is toxic and counterproductive. The more you try to deny grief, the more likely it is to keep coming up.

So, if you’re grieving the loss of the body you had before cancer, please know that you are not alone.

You’re not a bad or ungrateful person if it’s hard to accept your body as it is now. You’re human.

It’s possible to be grateful to be alive AND still struggle with your body image. Struggling with acceptance doesn’t negate your gratitude.

What to do if you’re struggling with cancer and body image concerns

In How to feel better about your body after cancer I share three things you can do if you struggle with cancer and body image.

I explain how to process your body grief, accept your body changes and feel more comfortable and at home in the body you’re now in.

I’d love to hear from you if you’re struggling with cancer and body image right now. What’s your experience, and what’s your one take-away from this post? Please leave a comment below.

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