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Navigating self-image while coping with cancer

By Maya Khamala

Due to the countless physical and emotional changes that so often occur following a cancer diagnosis, as well as before, during, and after cancer treatments, many people experience drastic changes to their self-image. Given the pervasive nature of cancer, this is hardly a surprise—it’s easy to feel alienated from who you thought you were, and profoundly out of sorts about it, to say the least.

But, friends, all hope is not lost. 

Being well-informed about of the types of changes you might expect, speaking openly with your medical professional(s) about your concerns, and surrounding yourself with a meaningful support network can go a long way toward mitigating a negative self-image and help you steel yourself for meaningful healing.

The following is a basic breakdown of the types of changes to your self-image you might expect when coping with cancer. Please note, however, that the changes you experience will be unique to you personally as well as the specific type of cancer you’re dealing with.

On a physical level

Both cancer and cancer treatments can change the way you look on a physical level. Naturally, many people with cancer feel major challenges to their self-esteem, confidence, and overall morale when faced with these changes to their bodies. 

Some of the most common physical changes associated with cancer include hair loss, weight gain or loss, surgery scars, rashes caused by drug therapies, the loss of an organ, limb, or breast, the need for an ostomy (AKA a surgical opening that allows bodily waste to exit the body into a bag), and fatigue or low energy—to name a few. It’s hardly surprising that many people coping with cancer started to lose the will to engage in activities that once brought them joy.

As hard as it may be to believe, many of the physical changes you experience during cancer will resolve post treatment, or improve with time. 

That being said, never hesitate to express any and all concerns you may have with your medical team. It’s always worth asking for further information and resources which might help to relieve your symptoms.

On an emotional level

Cancer’s a bitch, to put it lightly. It upends nearly every aspect of life, be it your career, hobbies, sports, sexuality, as well as relationships with friends, family, and romantic partners alike. It's difficult for some people to stay emotionally grounded or motivated enough to maintain intimate relationships.

Let’s face it: depending how serious your cancer happens to be, the whole experience may also force you to see your future from a whole new perspective; and maybe even wrap your head around the possibility of encountering death herself. 

Throughout all of this, it’s a million percent A-okay to feel sad (or deeply sorrowful), anxious (or insanely panicked), scared (or beyond terrified), angry (or next-level enraged), lonely, alienated, frustrated, guilty, ashamed, out of control, and/or super detached from your usual sense of self and self-image. 

We are all different, which means that some of us take longer or struggle more to accept changes to our self-image. 

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you may find you’re drowning in negative self talk.

You may not want to leave your house because you don’t want to be seen. You may feel like entirely ruling out romantic or sexual encounters. You may avoid physical touch, affection, or getting naked in front of your partner. You may avoid meeting new people. You may feel an overwhelming sense of shame for ever getting cancer to begin with. Ultimately, you may feel unable to accept yourself as you are now.

When bombarded with these larger-than-life emotions, it’s completely normal to struggle with holding on to your usual self-image, accepting who you are now, or even understanding how to identify with this different version of you.

But, hey, guess what? Many people with cancer report incredibly positive emotional turning points as well. It shouldn’t be surprising that such a life-changing disease has the potential to act as a catalyst for positive life changes. 

Positive feelings you may experience can occur on emotional, spiritual, or intellectual levels. You might discover a newfound appreciation for your physical strength, or your emotional resilience. You might encounter a profound sense of inner peace and gratitude for life and your loved ones. You may gain deep clarity as your priorities shift (or change drastically), and your authentic goals come into focus.

How to deal

The following tips are geared toward helping you cope with a range of self-image issues that you may experience while navigating cancer.

- Be patient and kind with yourself. Receiving a cancer diagnosis and undergoing chemotherapy or radiation can be life-changing. Give yourself time to get used to the idea. Show yourself kindness every chance you get.

- Build a support network. Be it your partner, friends, family, and/or chosen family, do your best to surround yourself with people who care about you and want to help you heal.

- Ask for help. If you’re fighting cancer, now is not the time to push yourself, or stretch your energies to the max—you know, the way our society has so ruthlessly normalized. As you see fit, don’t hesitate to delegate cooking, housework, babysitting, and work tasks to anyone willing to help out. Save your energy for powering up your healing process.

- Embrace humor whenever possible. Life is ultimately a big ol’ box of chocolates and a roller coaster, both at once. And a whole lot of other things too. Never underestimate the healing power of laughing it out.

- Stay active, as much as possible. Physical activity tends to help boost energy, and may help you feel better overall. Staying socially engaged can also prevent you from dwelling on the negative, and keep your spirits up.

- Talk it out. Having 1-on-1 conversations or attending support groups with others in a similar situation can help provide perspective, resources, and hope for recovery. You might also consider talking about your feelings with someone you trust, be it your partner, a close friend, or a qualified therapist. Consider seeking out the help of a couples counsellor who specializes in helping couples cope with cancer.

- Communicate regularly with your health care team. Ask about possible reconstructive surgery, prosthetic devices, and/or cosmetic solutions to your self-image concerns. If you’re worried about losing your hair, you might consider cutting or shaving it so you retain more control over your experiences.

While some changes, such as hair loss, are temporary, it can take more time to adjust to other changes, like the loss of a part of your body, or surgical scars. But with time, these changes just may become a normal part of your life. Some people even come to see these changes as signs of strength and survival—an inextricable part of who they’ve blossomed into.

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