Coping With Changes to Your Body

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 07/2014

Key Messages:

  • Cancer and its treatment can cause changes to your body, as well as affect the changes you would expect to experience during puberty.
  • Many changes go away after cancer treatment is finished, but some do not. Often, changes that do not go away, such as a scar, will become less noticeable over time.
  • It’s important to give yourself time to adjust to changes in your body, and ask for support if you are feeling overwhelmed.

Cancer and cancer treatment may cause changes to the way you look, feel, and perform regular activities. Some cancer treatments can cause temporary or permanent changes to your body, but not all treatments do. You may also experience changes in your physical abilities, such as decreases in your strength and endurance.

Cancer and cancer treatment can also affect how your body changes as a teen. During your teenage years, your body is changing as a part of normal development. Trying to figure out which changes are normal and which are related to cancer and treatment can be confusing. The following list includes some of the effects that cancer treatment can have on normal changes during puberty:

  • Cancer and cancer treatment can affect your growth and slow it down.
  • It may delay the beginning of menstrual periods in young women.
  • It may make acne harder to treat.

If you have questions or concerns about any of the changes in your body, be sure to talk with your doctor or a nurse.

Side effects from cancer treatment

Every cancer treatment has a risk of side effects. The side effects you experience may be different from what someone else experiences. Whether you develop side effects depends on the type of treatment, the dose you had, and how well your body copes with the treatment. Below are some of the more common side effects of cancer and cancer treatment. Learn more about other side effects.

Tell your parents and your health care team if you notice any of these side effects, even if it feels embarrassing. Your cancer care team can help ease many of these side effects. In fact, relieving side effects, also called symptom management, palliative care, or supportive care, is an important part of your cancer care and treatment. Don’t feel that you have to suffer while getting treated for cancer.

Coping with looking and feeling different

Outward changes, such as skin problems or losing your hair, can make you feel self-conscious. Even changes that aren't as visible, such as feeling tired or a hidden scar, can make you feel differently about yourself. It may help to remember that most teens feel self-conscious at times and that's normal. These tips may help you cope with looking and feeling different:

  • Give yourself time to get used to your new appearance and adjust to your body.
  • Remember that many body changes, such as hair loss or weight gain, are only temporary. Some permanent changes, such as scars, will become less noticeable over time.
  • Talk with other teens with cancer about how they cope with their body changes.
  • Be prepared for questions and comments about your appearance. Decide how much you want to tell people and think about how you'll answer questions. If you prefer not to talk about it, just tell your friends that it's private.
  • Remember that while your body may look and feel different, you're still the same person on the inside. The qualities that make you unique and special aren't changed by cancer.
  • If you're feeling overwhelmed by the changes in your body, ask your doctor for a referral to a counselor or a social worker.

Fertility and sexual health

Some treatments may affect your ability to have children later in life. Although, most teens think of parenthood as something for the future, it is important to talk with your doctor about fertility and reproductive health before treatment begins. There are options for both men and women to protect their fertility, called fertility preservation. For these options to be successful, they need to be considered before cancer treatment begins.

It’s also important to be careful not to become pregnant or to have unprotected sexual intercourse while you are receiving cancer treatment. If you are sexually active or thinking about becoming sexually active, talk with your doctor or another member of the health care team about how to keep you and your partner safe. For instance, it may be necessary to use a condom to protect your partner from exposure to chemotherapy. 

Once cancer treatment is finished, talk with your doctors and nurses about what to expect for your reproductive health. For women, this discussion may include when to expect regular menstrual periods. If you are sexually active, ask about when it is okay to start again. Finally, make sure you or your parents keep the information about your cancer treatment and fertility preservation for future doctors. Learn more about fertility and reproductive health.

More Information

Self-Image and Cancer

Life After Treatment

Additional Resources

Look Good—Feel Better for Teens/2bMe

Teens Living with Cancer: Body Issues

TeensHealth: Cancer Center