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What Is the Connection between Body Image and Cancer?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 12 November 2016
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Cancer is a disease that can create numerous physical changes to the body, both directly from the disease and as a result of treatment procedures. Poor body image and cancer are often linked, as cancer patients may be severely distraught by the physical transformation of their body during illness. Emotional and psychological distress, such as feeling that the body is now an enemy, can create another link poor body image and cancer. Some doctors and mental health experts strongly encourage patients with body image issues related to cancer discuss these issues with a qualified therapist.

Body image and cancer are connected due to the vast physical changes some forms of the disease may cause. The progression of cancer can cause many different physical effects, depending on the diagnosis. Patients may lose weight, have reduced endurance and physical ability, or may lose sensation in parts of the body. Treatment side effects may include hair loss, scars from surgery, or the implantation of waste-removal devices. Any of these effects can make a person feel completely unrecognizable to him or herself, and may lead to distress, loss of self-esteem, and depression.

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Even if a person undergoes few physical changes due to cancer, reduced body image and cancer can still become connected because of psychological concerns. Some people with cancer may feel betrayed by their bodies; or that the body has become a hostile, dangerous foe instead of part of the whole self. This anger and feeling of abandonment or threat can lead to decreased self-esteem, as people dealing with these issues may begin to feel disgust or hatred for their bodies. As self-esteem drops, people may become less interested in their daily lives, personal relationships, or even their treatment and recovery.

Patients with body image issues related to cancer may be reluctant to bring these concerns up with a doctor or therapist. Some mental experts suggest that patients may feel guilty or petty for being concerned with physical alterations instead of fighting the disease itself. Nevertheless, the connection between body image and cancer is well documented in cancer research, and many psychologists and doctors encourage patients to fully discuss their image concerns with a therapist. While therapy may not be able to restore the body to how it looked before the diagnosis, it can help patients deal with the destructive thinking patterns that cause poor self-esteem.

In addition to therapy, some experts recommend talking about body image and cancer with other cancer patients and survivors. Support groups can help reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness, and may give cancer patients a safe place to voice their fears and concerns. Hospitals and radiology centers can be excellent resources for local cancer support groups; many online communities also allow patients and survivors to maintain anonymity while discussing their issues.

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