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Talking About Body Image With Teens

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Today, CancerCare oncology social worker Sarah Paul, MSW, LMSW, discusses the importance of talking about body image with teens who have cancer, and offers tips on starting the conversation for parents and/or guardians.

Conversations about body image and self-esteem can be difficult to have with teenagers, even more so if their bodies have undergone a significant change.

This is an important time for a teen's personal growth and development; being truthful about body changes and letting teens participate in conversations about physical changes during their treatment can help them prepare for what may come.

Encouraging and supporting them to express themselves in a healthy way can also lead to better coping and communication skills in the future.

Why it's important

Adolescence is the time when teens begin to form their own identities based on both how they perceive themselves and how they are perceived by others.

In an era where social media is the driving force of communication for adolescents and young adults, there is often pressure to look a certain way in order to fit in or be liked.

Having a cancer diagnosis as an adolescent adds a complicated layer to the formation of identity. It is common for teens to engage in social comparisons, comparing themselves to peers, friends, and figures of pop culture.

These comparisons can make teenagers feel uncomfortable about how they look and may be strong enough to make them want to avoid their friends, school, public places, or having their picture taken.

Body image breakdown

When an adolescent is treated for cancer their body can react in a variety of ways: surgery can cause permanent scarring, chemotherapy can cause hair loss and weight loss, and steroids can cause weight gain.

Adolescents appreciate complete and honest information about side effects and what is going to be happening to their bodies. Because self-esteem, independence, socialization, sexuality, and body image are an important part of how they are forming their personal identity, it is important to keep this in mind when giving them information about their diagnosis and treatment plan.1

How to work with your teen’s medical team to prepare for changes in body image

As a parent or guardian, it is important to be aware of the possible changes that may occur in your teen’s body. It can help to sit down with them and prepare a list of questions to ask your their doctor together.
It is important for teens to understand their treatment or surgery. Although talking about possible treatment side effects can be a challenging conversation to have, it is important to share this information with them.

Keep an open line of communication with your teen, and try to explain why the treatment or surgery is needed in the first place. Being honest about what may happen might help them understand that the body changes are not permanent (hair loss, weight loss, weight gain, etc.).

It is also important to have a discussion about possible scarring that may occur with your teen’s medical team prior to surgery. This way, preparation can be made in case there are permanent changes to your teen’s body.

How to support a teen

Adolescents do not always have the emotional capacity to verbalize what they are feeling. Along with an open line of communication, it will be important to offer different types of support depending on the situation.

In this situation, teens may feel comfortable around family or close friends, but might react differently when meeting new people or going out into public places.

Teens often are concerned of how others view them; they do not want to be seen as “sick” or have people (especially strangers) feeling sorry for them. Giving teens support will be an integral part of how they adjust to body changes.

An important aspect of support will be validation and normalization; teens want to know that it is okay and normal to feel the way they do.

Some other support techniques may include:

  • Providing an outlet to express their feelings (art, music, writing, etc.)
  • Listening if and when they want to talk about body changes, body image, and self-esteem
  • Encouraging them to join a support group where they can connect to other teens going through a similar experience

Creating a safe space for young people with cancer to share what they are going through is important. If necessary, reach out to their child's hospital social worker or a child life specialist. It is possible that outside support will be necessary in order to make your teen feel heard and supported.

Extending the support network

Use the internet to reach out for extra support if you are lacking resources in your area. CancerCare offers an online support group for teens who have cancer; this group is moderated by a licensed oncology social worker and can help connect a teenage patient with cancer to those in a similar situation. Teens Living with Cancer has information to help teens learn about cancer, its treatment, and how to cope; the Dealing with It section talks about body issues, school, and how to talk to family and friends.

Patients or family members that need additional support can also reach out to CancerCare's Hopeline (800-813-4673) to speak to an oncology social worker.

A version of this article originally appeared on Oncology Nurse Advisor.


  1. Lauria MM, Clark EJ, Hermann JF, Stearns NM. Social work in oncology: Supporting survivors, families, and caregivers. Atlanta, GA: American Cancer Society; 2001.


www.beautythrougthebeast.ciom said on Tuesday, October 27 2015
I'm dealing with body image as a 44 year old, single woman with a double mastectomy - I didn't even think of the impact it has on adolescents. Great article!
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