Self-Image and Cancer

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 08/2022

Self-image is how you think about or see yourself. The physical and emotional changes that cancer brings can change your self-image.

Your self-image may be closely tied to your body image. This is how you see and feel about your body. But it also includes how you think or see yourself apart from body image.

Some of the changes to how you feel about your self-image may be positive and some may be negative. This article describes some changes you may notice and how changes can be addressed.

Physical changes and body image

Cancer and treatment can change how you look. "Body image" is the term for how you feel about your looks. Many people with cancer feel self-conscious, upset, or sad about changes in their bodies. This is normal and understandable. Common physical changes of cancer or its treatment include:

  • Hair loss

  • Weight gain or weight loss

  • Surgery scars

  • Rash, typically as a side effect of certain medications

  • Loss of a limb or an organ, such as a breast

  • The need for an ostomy, an opening that lets waste out of your body into a bag

  • Changes to your facial appearance, such as from fatigue or due to treatment for cancer in the head or neck

  • Other effects of fatigue or loss of energy, which can cause you to give up activities you used to enjoy

  • Possible sexual health problems and/or loss of fertility

Physical changes can affect your body image, which can impact your self-image. Some of these changes will get better as time passes after treatment. Some may last for a long time.

Be sure to share any concerns with your health care team. This includes finding out how long a change is likely to last. There may be ways to relieve symptoms caused by physical changes, like treatment for a rash or ways to relieve fatigue. Your health care team can also help you find ways to cope with emotions these changes cause (see more below).

Particularly when cancer causes more permanent changes to your body, such as surgery scars or the loss of an organ or limb, a support group with people who have gone through similar changes may be helpful.

Emotional changes

Cancer can change many parts of your life, from relationships to work to hobbies. Depending on your diagnosis and treatment plan, you may need to change some future plans. You may also have to cope with a serious threat of cancer to your life expectancy. All these things can bring up difficult emotions, including:

At times you may feel out of control, lonely, or different from everyone else. This is common, but it is important to let someone know if these feelings are persistent, such as talking with a counselor.

Cancer can also cause positive changes. For example, you may feel:

  • Appreciation for the strength of your body

  • Peace

  • Gratitude

  • Awareness that everyone's life is short and special

  • Grateful for new relationships with caregivers and other patients

Things that seemed important in the past may seem less important, as you focus on new priorities. This can be a positive change as small worries matter less. You may also have a clearer idea of your personal goals and the meaning of your life.

And, it is possible to feel conflicting emotions, both positive and negative feelings, at the same time.

Coping with changes to your self-image when you have cancer

Here are some tips to help you cope with changes in your self-image.

Let other people support you. Allow people around you to provide help. Do not be afraid to ask for and accept help, including with tasks that take a lot of energy or that you do not like doing. This can give you more time to focus on healing. This may include family members or friends, including your primary caregivers.

This can also include other people you meet during the cancer experience, such as through in-person or online support groups or other programs. It may help to talk with someone who went through a similar situation. This can help you understand what you are going through, feel less alone, and give you hope. Learn more about options for finding social support and information.

Ask your health care team for help. Let your health care team know your worries and concerns. They can help you understand what to expect from your treatments. For example, they can tell you if your cancer treatment can cause hair loss, and if so, when that may happen so you are not surprised by it. They can also let you know if there are options to prevent hair loss or help you find a wig or other head covering.

Your health care team will also be able to tell you what your options are for reconstructive surgery. This type of surgery can restore function to parts of your body that were damaged during cancer treatment. Common types of reconstructive surgery include a breast implant, an artificial limb or eye, and treatment for scar tissue.

Work with a mental health professional. Professional help from a counselor can help you cope with difficult or conflicting feelings and with physical changes.

Stay physically active. Physical activity can give you more energy and help you feel better during treatment and after treatment ends. Talk with your health care team about how to safely start exercising and any exercises to avoid.

Give yourself time to adjust. A cancer diagnosis is often unexpected news that feels overwhelming at first. It is normal to need time to adjust to the possible life changes and many emotions you experience, as well as changes experienced during and after cancer treatment. Be gentle with yourself as you get used to all the changes.

Questions to ask the health care team

  • Does the recommended cancer treatment have side effects that affect my appearance or body, such as hair loss or scarring?

  • If so, when are these changes likely to happen? Will they be permanent?

  • Will reconstructive surgery be an option for me?

  • Could my sexual health or fertility be impacted?

  • Who can I talk with if I'm struggling with my self-image?

  • Are there counseling services at this medical center for patients?

  • How can I safely exercise during cancer?

  • Can you help me find a support group or peer support program for people who have had similar experiences?

  • Are there other programs or support services that could help me with my self image?

Related Resources

Body Image Matters

Body Image After Cancer

Do Cancer Survivors Have To Be Positive All the Time? Letting Yourself Feel Every Emotion During Cancer Survivorship

Struggles After Cancer Treatment? 5 Signs to Seek Help

Sexual Health and Cancer: What to Know, What to Do

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