Embracing Body Image After Cancer

Published on: 04/23/15

One of the most common complaints I hear from patients relate to body image after cancer. One of the more common reactions to cancer, particularly during treatment, is having negative thoughts and feelings about your body or appearance. Cancer is ugly, and sometimes leaves us feeling that way too. Body image is a complicated thing, and what we see in the mirror is not necessarily what other people see.

Today, we’re going to discuss body image and exercises to help develop a healthy love for yourself. We are often too self-critical, and in order to find intimacy again with a partner, we need to learn to love, accept, and appreciate the new you. I know there’s much to love here, and so will you.

Before cancer, our concerns were most likely around weight, or what you saw as an unattractive feature like your nose, or your height, or your aging skin or muscle mass. After cancer, you probably have just piled on that list.

Body image is the mental picture you have about your body, and the way you treat yourself based on that image. And no surprise that we are usually our own worst critic. We excuse others flaws, but are harsh on ourselves. We have a double standard when it comes to how we measure up. But feeling bad about yourself will absolutely transfer to the way you feel about yourself, generally as a person, and that will absolutely transfer into your intimate relationships.

First, assess if the negative thoughts you have about your body image or new since cancer or have they always been there. Do you like yourself or dislike yourself more since cancer? Do you have a negative view of your body that interferes with romance and intimacy? I’m not suggesting you feel happy about your missing breast, missing hair, or missing testicle, but let’s do what we can to put it into perspective.

Cancer can permanently change your appearance and or the way a specific part of your body functions. You may feel your body has betrayed you. And in the words of Gloria Steinem, “Self-esteem isn’t everything; it’s just that there’s nothing without it.” A healthy self-esteem is appreciating who you are as a person. Cancer can alter our body image and devastate an already low self-esteem. Though it’s important to not over simplify what it will take to raise self-esteem, self-love, and self-confidence, here are some suggestions toward that end.

Don’t stuff these negative feelings you have about yourself. Journal about it, talk to a friend or counselor, and consider joining a support group where you will find others struggling with these same thoughts. Your feelings are common, especially after cancer treatment. There are also great resources like American Cancer Society’s Reach to Recovery program, developed to address this very subject, or Look Good…Feel Better, designed to pamper yourself while teaching you to modify your makeup to accentuate the positive.

It’s important to stop doing whatever it is that makes you feel bad about your body and yourself.


Look at your husband and evaluate his changes over the years. Has he gotten gray, bigger around the middle, flatter in the bottom, hairier around the ears? We all change…

Close your eyes and think of one of the most beautiful people you have in your life. Just imagine them for a few seconds. Why did you choose that person? What about them makes them beautiful to you? Did you base it on their face, their hair, their physique, their height, their clothing, their attitude, their heart, their generosity, their caring nature, their flawless skin? What? Make a list of all the things you find beautiful in that person. Prioritize the list. For the purpose of determining beauty, in order of importance, organize the qualities you’ve listed. When you’re done, evaluate it. Any surprises? Do you judge others beauty differently than you do your own? Why the double standard? Could it be, that others do the same thing when judging us and themselves? Probably.

However, After Cancer it’s easy to feel beaten down. It’s important to be around people who see the good in you, who encourage you to be kind to yourself, and build you up. Avoid toxic people. Be gentle kind and generous with yourself. Consciously, drop the self-criticism. You have survived an extremely challenging illness, or are living with this illness, so pat yourself on the back for the way you dealt with it. Be your own cheerleader. If you’re not sure how to improve your self-esteem, just take one small step in the right direction. There is power in your thoughts. They are potent.

Let’s discuss emotions and thoughts about your body.

Regarding my inner self: What are the qualities of my body or my inner self that are important to me and that I like? (I have my mom’s nose, and my dad’s blue eyes. I am trusting of everyone and generous almost to a fault, or I have a great sense of humor or am curious about the world). List 5.

Regarding my outer self…What do I find ok? What do I like? What do I find ok or others compliment me on? What is helpful to me? What makes me happy? List 5.

When I am feeling ok about my appearance or my body….

What is that like? What are my thoughts? How do I act? What feelings do I have?

If you catch yourself being, feeling, or thinking in negative ways about your appearance, it helps to remember alternative ways to think about this situation even though it might be something you cannot change. When you think about a feature you don’t like about yourself, think about it from another perspective. If you don’t like the shape of your eyes, do you like their function, the way your eyes view others, your perceptions of others. You can appreciate a feature for multiple reasons. When you naturally think of the negative, force yourself every single time to find the positive in that feature. It’s there, and there is more than one positive to find.

List 5 negative thoughts you regularly have. Now force yourself to find the positive in each one of those.

It might not be easy at first, it might take you a few minutes to allow your thinking about yourself to not include criticism. We’re going to retrain our thinking starting today. It’s important, it’s necessary for your emotional and physical well-being.

Next time we’ll talk more on this topic, by exploring negative thinking, how it presents itself, and how to eliminate it from our lives.

Remember to visit our website where you’ll find other great information and resources. While you’re there, sign up to join the community of survivors struggling with these same issues. You’ll receive advice, tips, and resources on finding intimacy again directly to your email inbox. Your questions are welcomed and encouraged. Comment below!

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