Cancer and Your Body

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 05/2017

Watch the Moving Forward video on Body Changes, adapted from this content.

Body image is how you feel about your appearance. Changes to your body image from cancer and its treatment also affect your self-image. Self-image is how you see your personality, abilities, potential, values, and interests. It is also important in how you relate to others.

Common body changes from cancer

Not all cancer treatments cause physical changes. But when they do, the changes may be temporary or permanent. Physical changes associated with cancer and its treatment may include:

  • Hair loss

  • Scars from surgery

  • Fatigue

  • Skin changes, including rashes and burns

  • Swelling of the face, arms, or legs

  • Decreased physical skills, including athletic abilities, balance, and agility

  • Weakness or loss of stamina

  • Loss of a body part

  • Weight loss

  • Weight gain

  • Changes in sexual function, such as early menopause in women, loss of sexual interest, or erectile difficulties in men

  • Infertility, or the inability to conceive a child

Learn more about these side effects.

How physical changes affect body image

For many young adults, appearance and physical strengths and abilities are an important part of self-image. When your appearance changes or you aren’t able to do the things you once did, you may feel self-conscious. You may even feel insecure about changes that others can’t see. These could include fatigue, hidden scars, infertility, or early menopause.

Even if cancer leaves no permanent physical changes, you may still feel different about your body after cancer treatment. You may see your body as weak or vulnerable at a time when your peers are in good health. However, many young adults describe positive changes in their body image as a result of living with cancer. You may:

  • Gain a greater appreciation of your body’s resilience

  • Discover that weight or body shape issues matter less than they did before

  • See your scars as signs of courage and survival

  • Be newly inspired to make healthy lifestyle changes

How cancer can affect your sexual health

Cancer and its treatment may affect how you feel about your desirability and desire for sex. These feelings, in turn, often affect your relationships, whether you have a partner or are dating.

Dating and relationships are very important at this point in life. It can be difficult to see friends enter relationships, get married, and have children. This is especially true if you feel unattractive and are worried about being able to have children in the future. Sexuality is an important part of life, so it’s helpful to understand potential sexual side effects and learn ways to cope with these changes.

Learn more about how cancer treatment can affect the sexual health of men and women. And review tips for dating and intimacy after cancer.

Coping with changes to your body

It is normal to feel sad, angry, and worried about changes to your body. Others feel anxious, depressed, scared, or even trapped. Here are several ways to cope with these feelings:

  • Before treatment begins, ask your doctor what body changes to expect. This will allow you to prepare. For example, if your treatment can cause hair loss, you may want to cut your hair shorter before starting.

  • Give yourself time to grieve physical losses and to adjust to your new body.

  • Talk with other people with cancer about how they coped with and adjusted to body changes. Joining a support group is a good way to find others with similar experiences.

  • Be prepared for questions and comments about your appearance. Think about how you will respond. If you prefer not to talk about it, tell people it's a private matter.

  • Remember that although your body may look and feel different, you are still the same person. Cancer does not take away your personality, interests, or talents. You may even discover a new talent or strength.

  • Take care of your body with regular exercise and good nutrition. Make sure to get enough sleep. Also, talk to your doctor about drinking alcohol and any limits on your physical activity or diet.

  • Protect your skin from the sun. Your skin may become more sensitive with cancer treatment.

  • Find a new activity that interests you if you are no longer able to do activities that you enjoyed. Learning a new skill can help you regain confidence in your body.

  • Ask for a referral to a physical therapist or fitness coach. These professionals can help you manage any physical limitations. They can also help you regain balance and learn how to function with your changed body. Learn more about rehabilitation.

  • Let your health care team know about your concerns and questions.

  • Ask your doctor for a referral to a counselor or an oncology social worker. They can help if your concerns become overwhelming or cause you to avoid people and situations you used to enjoy.

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