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For Any Cancer Diagnosis

Q. My teenage son has had body-image issues since having cancer. His treatments caused him to gain weight and surgeries left him with scars. How can I help him deal with this?

A.

During adolescence, teens often focus on their bodies and how they compare to their peers. A teen whose physical appearance has been affected as a result of his cancer treatment can often experience complex and complicated feelings about himself.

It is important to acknowledge the impact the cancer has had on your son’s life. Not only did it make him sick, keep him out of school, and separate him from his friends, it also changed his body. In a word, the cancer diagnosis “sucked.” Helping your teen voice this and acknowledging that his situation was unfair can help to normalize the anger and frustration he most likely feels.

Group Loop is an online community designed specifically for teens and can connect him with other teens.

Your son may also need additional support outside of the family, especially if he is displaying behavior which is not typical for him. CancerCare’s oncology social workers can talk with your teen (or you) about his current situation and provide individual counseling and referrals to other professionals in your area who can help.

As a parent, you may also feel overwhelmed and concerned about your teen’s physical changes. Addressing your feelings and the impact your son’s diagnosis has had on you is also very important. We can provide and help you find local support for yourself as well.

For Breast Cancer

Q. I'm 43 years old, married and going to have a mastectomy. I'm insecure about how my body is going to look and being intimate with my husband. How can I maintain my femininity and a positive body image?

A.

When it comes to changes in our bodies, no matter what a woman’s age, those changes will challenge how we see ourselves and our perception of how others see us. This can be especially true for women who have had a mastectomy or bilateral surgery since images in the media so often place a heavy emphasis on how women look. Breast reconstruction has helped many women redefine their feelings about the loss of a breast. You might want to consult with a plastic surgeon about what options are available to you. For women who do not choose reconstruction, the use of a breast prosthesis can be a good alternative. A prosthesis can give a look of symmetry; many of the newer prostheses are made of a lighter weight material and come in special forms that can be used in swimwear and night gowns. It’s important to recognize that this is a loss, and with loss comes grief. Remember that it will take time to adjust and it’s a good idea to reach out for support and guidance during this time.

Treatment for breast cancer such as chemotherapy or hormonal blockers may also have side effects that can produce early menopause, vaginal dryness and a diminished desire for intimacy. Talking with your doctor about products that can reduce symptoms of dryness or discomfort can help. Opening a conversation about your concerns with your partner is an important first step. Many people don’t understand the actual physical basis for diminished desire and feel they are being rejected.

How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) Through Diagnosis, Treatment and Beyond (Rodale Inc.) by Mark Silver, is one book you and your partner might find helpful. In addition, you may try contacting Living Beyond Breast Cancer.

You can also find additional information and advice in a previous Ask CancerCare that addressed body image and intimacy issues.