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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.

Body changes may make your teen feel uncomfortable about how they look. These feelings may be strong enough to make them want to avoid their friends, school, public places or having their picture taken. Adolescence is a time where teens engage in social comparisons, often comparing themselves to their peers and friends. It is important to validate your son’s concerns regarding his body image. Self-esteem is very fragile and is often impacted by not only how we view ourselves, but how others view us as well.

Keep an open line of communication with your son about this topic. Explain to him why his treatment is so important even though it has caused him to gain weight. Try to help him understand why his body is changing so that he can understand these changes are not permanent. You may also want to encourage him to engage in some types of physical activity when he is feeling up to it (activities approved by his oncologist or physical therapist). Also, you may want to consult with a nutritionist to create helpful and healthy eating plans while on treatment.

It is important for your son to understand the reason behind his surgeries and scarring. Many times, a conversation before surgery can help teens prepare for body changes so that they are not such a shock. However, after the surgery site has healed, you can experiment with different types of make-up and concealers (there are special ones for scars). Also, different clothing styles may be able to cover the areas that your son is not comfortable exposing.

You can support your son during this time by doing some of the following:

  • Providing an outlet to express his feelings (art, music, writing, etc.)
  • Listening if and when he wants to talk about body image changes
  • Letting him know that you understand what he is feeling and that it is okay to feel the way that he does

Creating a safe space for him to share what he is going through is important. If necessary, reach out to your son’s social worker through the hospital or a child life specialist. It is possible that outside support is necessary in order to make your son feel heard.

Teens Living with Cancer has information to help teens learn about cancer, its treatment and how to cope. This site’s Dealing with It section talks about body issues, school, family and friends, and it helps teens connect with other teens who have cancer.

If you need additional support, feel free to reach out to CancerCare’s Hopeline (800-813-4673). We can provide psychosocial support as well as local referrals as needed.

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.