If you are feeling strong emotions like anger or sadness because of your own experience with body image and cancer, you are not alone.

Body image describes how a person perceives their physical self.  For most people, body image changes gradually over time in response to physical changes often connected with aging.

But for a woman diagnosed with breast cancer, shifts in body image can be sudden, drastic and emotional. This is especially evident during and after treatment for breast cancer.

Women often tell me that their providers addressed the physical changes treatment could cause, but considering this issue on top of the stress of a new diagnosis proved difficult.

Chemotherapy, hormonal therapy, surgery, and radiation therapy - standard treatments for most breast cancers - carry side-effects that can cause visible changes to the body. Scarring, lymphedema, fluctuating weight, hair loss, breast removal and skin changes are among the most common. Early menopause – which can bring on hot flashes and fatigue – can lead to a less physically active life.

These side-effects are more than physical: they also impact emotional well-being which can lead to a loss of confidence and  control.

It's important to remember that these feelings are valid and that not uncommon.  Many, many women (and men) experience them.

So, what can you do about it? A few months ago, Anne Katz, RN, PhD, nurse specialist and sexuality counselor at Cancercare Manitoba, offered readers of our quarterly newsletter, Insight, a few simple ways to start:

Give yourself time to grieve the loss of your breasts, hair, or physical ability.

  • Wear comfortable clothes.
  • If you've had or are considering breast reconstruction, think about nipple or areola tattoos, if that is important to you.
  • Eat healthily and limit alcohol. A good diet can help you maintain weight and make you feel well physically and emotionally. Consider consulting a nutritionist.
  • If you have a partner, talk about how you feel. Open communication is one of the best ways to actively cope with challenges in relationships, and though it may be uncomfortable to bring up sex, talking now sets the stage for later.
  • If you're single or dating casually, take as much time as you need to start a physical relationship. Who you choose to share your body with is your decision.
  • Find a support group, or seek professional counseling. Sometimes all it takes is extra understanding from people who've been there or who know what to say or ask.

Jean Sachs is the CEO of Living Beyond Breast Cancer. LBBC.ORG. has programs and services designed specifically to help women cope with body image following a breast cancer diagnosis.  If you or someone you love currently struggles with these issues, please consider attending our upcoming Breast Cancer 360: Body Acceptance after Diagnosis, on July 14.

Read more Diagnosis: Cancer here »