Friday 4th October 2019

CarolineAs a Teenage Cancer Trust Youth Support Coordinator, no two days are the same; my days are so varied and sometimes I find myself doing the craziest things. However, there is one topic that I find myself discussing with young people pretty much every day and that is body image.

In fact I’d say that over half of my conversations with young people every week are around issues relating to body image.

The term ‘body image’ can mean different things to different people but ultimately we are talking about the way in which we feel about and see our own bodies.

Many of us have some anxiety about the way we look or the way we are perceived by others at some point in our lives…for young people especially, this is hugely important. They’re discovering their own identity, who they truly are and what they want to be; how they feel about themselves and how others see them is extremely important.

The young people I work with are no different. However they often feel they can’t control any of this due to the way their cancer/cancer treatment changes their appearance.

Young people with cancer can have all the same concerns and insecurities as everyone else but it does add a whole new set of problems: hair loss, eyebrow/lash loss, facial hair loss, weight gain, weight loss, stretch marks, scars, limb changes and other visible differences. There’s lots of ways that cancer and its treatment changes people’s appearance and it really is different for everybody.

Some young people feel confident and proud to show off their new, different appearance and for others that can feel like something they would never do. We often see this when young people are choosing their wigs. Some want a wig that’s exactly like their own hair, the same colour and style so no one else will ever know it’s a wig. Others decide to go for wig that’s the exact opposite of their hair, in bright vivid colours and a completely different style, and use it as an opportunity to show their own individual style.

That’s why the support we offer is bespoke to every young person. We work with each individual to address their own unique set of worries/concerns and support them, whilst at the same time, hopefully providing them with opportunities that allow them to see they aren’t on their own with how they feel. 

Lots of other young people feel similarly, so we provide workshops and opportunities for young people to share their thoughts and experiences with each other. Peer support is really important in the work we do as we find that when a young person doesn’t like the way they look they can often isolate themselves which has a huge impact on their day to day quality of life. They may stop going out with friends, see their partners less, stop going to school/college or not access opportunities that may enrich their lives for the better, because they don’t like the way they look or are concerned about what others will think of them…

These are all things that we know are really important to them and their emotional health, so we try and offer support in a number of ways.

We are there throughout treatment and afterwards to offer support, from the moment a young person finds out they will lose their hair, to helping pick out wigs, offering advice about styling, and then offering support when hair starts coming back or if a longer term solution is needed.

We also provide all our young women and men with brow products and lashes if they need them and advise them on how to create a brow/ or apply lashes if they’re not used to doing this. We discuss skin care and advice on what products they should maybe avoid and offer alternative suggestions.

We also discuss and offer support and advice on camouflage make up, stretch marks, skin changes, limb differences and whatever other changes that young person is experiencing. We work in conjunction with our TYA psychologist to offer sessions to help build confidence and focus on how to emotionally deal with changes in appearance.

The list of things we do is endless… but ultimately we listen!

Some of these changes may be temporary and some will be permanent. There’s nothing we can do to stop these changes but we can listen to young people and acknowledge that it’s difficult and can be really hard to cope with on top of their diagnosis and treatment. If we don’t support them it can have a long term effect on their lives going forward.

Young people often say that when people try to help and say things like ‘its only hair, it’ll grow back’ and ‘I don’t even notice it’, it feels dismissive. Despite what their friends/family think, these things are happening to them and only they know how it feels to have your body change due to cancer. We try and help our young people to be kind to themselves and not to compare themselves to others, we encourage them to really focus on the things they like about themselves and are proud of as well as remind them that looking different on the outside doesn’t have to change who you are inside.

We’re all unique, it's ok to not love every part of your body but what’s important is that we celebrate and acknowledge how absolutely amazing we are inside and out.