Body image and breast cancer treatment

Body image issues and other emotional side effects can occur as a result of breast cancer treatment.

The physical changes that can result from breast cancer are well known. However, breast cancer also can lead to emotional changes. In fact, treatments that are designed to beat cancer can have negative effects on a woman’s body image and self-esteem.

Body image is a complex post-treatment concern for breast cancer patients and survivors, and one that may not be as widely addressed as other issues. A study titled “Body Image in Younger Breast Cancer Survivors” that was published in the journal Cancer Nursing found that body image is a large concern and has a profound impact on aspects of cancer survivorship, particularly among young breast cancer survivors.

The American Cancer Society notes that many women experience various changes in appearance while undergoing cancer treatments. These can include anything from changes in weight (increase or decrease), hair loss, surgical removal of breasts, scarring, lack of sexual interest from fluctuating hormones and much more. Even though health care providers are good at targeting the immediate challenges of the disease, emotional support is not always part of their post-treatment follow-up.

Mary Jane Esplen, a psycho-oncologist at the University of Toronto, says she has heard from breast cancer survivors who have battled with body image after treatment. In various therapy sessions, Esplen has learned that some women give up swimming and wearing swimsuits, while others avoid mirrors or get dressed in the dark. Esplen advises that participating in post-treatment therapy and support groups can help women battling body image issues after breast cancer treatment.

Many of the physical effects of breast cancer treatment are temporary or can be mitigated. For example, hair loss can be traumatic, but with time hair will regrow. In the interim, women can wear fashionable wigs and head covers.

Some treatment-related changes may be permanent. A complete or partial mastectomy can transform the way the breasts look or make them less sensitive to touch. Many women opt to have reconstructive surgery or use a breast prosthesis.

One change women may not anticipate is how chemotherapy can affect their hormone levels and their sexual interest or response. Being open with a romantic partner about physical and emotional feelings can help couples effectively work together to find various work-arounds to assist with pain, dryness, trouble reaching orgasm, and other sexual issues.

Many women struggle with body image and emotional changes following breast cancer treatment. With patience and a strong support network, various issues can be addressed and possibly remediated.

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