Is this really me?

It’s hard not to be affected if cancer or cancer treatment changes the way you look. The way we feel about ourselves can be closely linked to our appearance. So if you do look different, you might feel less confident, or more self-conscious, or shy, or just angry that your body doesn’t work or look like it used to. You might not want to hang out with your friends, or be worried about meeting someone because you feel less attractive. All of these feelings are totally normal – but try to remember that, even if your body does change, you’re still you. And there are always people you can talk to about how you’re feeling.

Physical changes

Not everyone who has cancer will go through physical changes, and some changes – like hair loss and weight change – usually aren’t permanent. But these are some of the ways that cancer and cancer treatments can affect your body. (Try not to get scared by this list – it’s always worse seeing everything listed together):

  • Changes to how you look – like hair loss, weight loss, changes to your weight, changes to your skin, swelling and changes due to surgery.
  • Changes to how your body works – you might find you move or speak slightly differently, or that swallowing becomes tricky. Concentration and memory can sometimes be affected too, and so can your fertility.
  • Changes to how you feel – you might feel pain if a tumour is pressing on a nerve or, after surgery, you might find the area that has been operated on feels numb or slightly different.

If you’re worried about any of these changes or your body does start to change, talk to your doctors and nurses. They’ll be able to let you know what’s going on and how long any changes are likely to last.

Coping with change

Even if your body is on your mind right now, over time the way you feel about yourself will probably start to improve. And in the meantime, there are things you can do to feel better:

  • Try out a new look. Buy a new hat. Get a wig from Hair 4 U. Go shopping for clothes in your new size if you’ve put on or lost a bit of weight.
  • Experiment with make-up. A few small changes can make you feel very different.
  • Look after yourself. Eating well, getting enough sleep and exercising when you can will help you feel and look better. Find out more about healthy living with cancer.
  • Hang out with the right people. Good friends will make you feel good about yourself.
  • Prepare for strange questions. People might say thoughtless things or look at you differently. It can help to figure out how you want to reply beforehand.
  • Remember you’re still the same. Cancer might change how you look, but it won’t change who you are. So try to focus on all the things you’re proud of and the things people value about you, rather than on your body worries.
  • Talk about your feelings. People will only realise you’re worried about your appearance if you let them know.

Talking about change

Talking about feelings can be difficult. But talking about feelings about bodies? That’s a whole new level of difficult. 

The trouble is, bottling up what you’re going through really doesn’t help. It can stop you doing the things you enjoy, because you’re worried about how you look – when you really don’t need to be. 

So here’s the good news – there are ways to make talking about your body easier. You could talk to your doctors or nurses. They spend their whole lives talking about this stuff, so they won’t get embarrassed and they’ll help you not to feel embarrassed. It can help to write down what’s on your mind so you don’t forget – and you can always show your doctor what you’ve written if you’d prefer.  

You can ask your nurse or doctor to refer you to a clinical psychologist too. They’re trained to help you get used to changes in your appearance and make sense of difficult feelings.

And you might like to get in touch with a local cancer support group to chat through what’s happening to you. A lot of people find it easier to talk to people who’ve gone through similar changes during cancer treatment.