Nurturing Your Body From Within
A diagnosis of cancer followed by intense treatments is a big hurdle for a cancer patient to face. Another, perhaps more unexpected hurdle is dealing with body changes. Hair loss, weight gain or loss, or even severe disfigurements can result from cancer and its treatments, leaving some people with life-long physical and emotional scars. There are ways cancer survivors can cope, but it is not just about putting on a wig or finding the right shade of makeup to cover a scar. It must also come from within.
From insecurity to inspiration
Everyone has a body image, a mental picture of one's physical appearance. A person's body image may shape his or her self-esteem. No matter how small, changes in body image from cancer or its treatments can affect how people feel about themselves.
Terry Healey, author of "At Face Value," was secure in his appearance before his cancer. A Homecoming Prince in high school, Healey had no trouble attracting attention with his good looks. However, a battle with fibrosarcoma left the right side of his face marred and unrecognizable by the surgeries needed to remove the cancer. Healey underwent 35 reconstructive surgeries to rebuild his nose, lips, and right eye. During the time of the surgeries and for years after, he received a very different kind of "attention."
"Strangers would ask brutal questions like ‘God, what happened to you!?' Maybe it shouldn't have mattered coming from strangers, but to me they were the real world," he says. Healey became so fixated on his appearance that he admits becoming an "emotional wreck."
"I constantly needed reassurance. I realized that my disfigurement was far worse on the inside than the outside," he says.
Ironically, that insight gave Healey the push he needed to focus on new things and begin to accept his appearance. He credits a major turning point to joining a cancer support group, which revived his confidence. "People were inspired by my story and thought I had an incredible attitude. I didn't see that at all -- I was so down on myself. But it became inspirational to me to know that I should be proud of what I've gone through and who I am."
Working toward body acceptance
Linda Mitchell, a two-time cancer survivor of Hodgkin's disease and breast cancer, had a mastectomy on one breast but waited a year before having reconstruction. She recalls her discomfort during the year she wore a prosthetic breast. "I couldn't wear sleeveless tops and wouldn't dream of putting on a swimsuit, even ones made for my condition."
Although Mitchell might have found support from family and friends, she admits they caused her even more distress. "I was more self-conscious around people who knew me than strangers, because they knew my chest wasn't real," she says.
Mitchell traveled a long road in learning to accept her body, even after the reconstruction. She drew on her spiritual beliefs and meditated regularly to cope. But perhaps the most encouragement came from her husband. "He made the biggest difference by convincing me that I didn't need to be so self-conscious."
Alice Rainess, LCSW, a clinical social worker at an oncology center and a member of the Association of Oncology Social Work, says the first thing people with a disfigurement need to do is let themselves be angry and upset about it. "Many people feel guilty because they think they are vain in caring about their appearance. There's nothing wrong with having pride in your body. You no longer look the way you did and may feel cheated.
"It's part of all of us that we want to look our best. When you let yourself feel that, you can move on," she says.
Even survivors who do not have a visible disfigurement can suffer from a negative body image. It is normal for some cancer patients to feel that their bodies have failed them or are now tainted.
The following are tips to help one cope with a negative body image and rebuild confidence. Healey found that, "When you gain a certain level of confidence in yourself, people actually stop noticing you so much and making comments."
Set goals. This can improve your focus on other important things in your life. Healey says, "Taking time to set goals helped take my mind off the cancer and disfigurement. It made me concentrate on new things. That in turn built confidence and I started achieving goals I had been striving toward for a long time."
Some goals might be signing up for the community photography class you've been meaning to take, playing with your kids for an hour every day, or finishing a project you've put off, like painting the house or starting a vegetable garden. It might mean going back to school or making an exciting career change.
Share your story with others. Join a cancer support group, an online cancer message board, or talk with a close friend. Talking to others who understand your situation can provide support, comfort, and even empowerment. As Healey learned, "Part of the benefit of support groups is getting help, but also helping other people. I went there for myself but came away feeling better about things I said to others."
People often seek support groups with others who have had similar experiences. Healey suggests also trying a group with people who do not have the same cancer or condition. "Female versus male disfigurement can be very different in our society. Even if it's more hidden, as with breast cancer, it doesn't lessen the impact. People don't really consider the horrific emotions that go on unless they experience it themselves.
"You can learn a lot from people with different backgrounds," he says.
Sharing personal experiences can also bring awareness to people not familiar with unusual diseases and situations. Healey reveals that his book "At Face Value" is not so much about cancer but about how society deals with physical appearances and how judgmental people can be. "Just a little more awareness can help people be more sensitive," he says.