Patient Guide

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Body Image Issues

Cancer treatment can affect your body and your life in ways that are hard on your self-esteem. Weight loss or gain, loss of stamina, skin reactions, and puffy face can all be distressing if you think of your body as being who you are. Fortunately, most of these side effects of therapy are temporary.

The first step is to direct your energy and thoughts toward what you can and will do for yourself. Paying attention to skin care, diet, exercise, and attitude are healthy ways to cope with body image changes. Finding ways to express your feelings about the changes is very important.

Important Signs and Symptoms

Report symptoms to your doctor or nurse during clinic hours today if you are:

  • Feeling very sad or very angry most of the day
  • Losing interest in life because of changes in your body
  • Not taking care of yourself (not exercising, dressing, or caring for your skin)

You may benefit by talking to your social worker or a mental health counselor.

What You Can Do at Home

  • Maintain a confident and positive self image.
  • Express your feelings to a trusted family member, friend, nurse, or social worker.
  • Talk with other people who have had similar treatment about what they did and how they coped with changes in body image.
  • List your best points. Then list your options for what you would like to try to maintain a good body image.
  • Laugh! Humor is a fine way to cope. Treat yourself to funny movies, TV shows, books, or even people.
  • Take advantage of programs to help you look your best during cancer treatment.

Consider Using a Hair Alternative

  • Buy or borrow a wig. SCCA provides one complimentary wig to SCCA patients for hair loss. For a wig fitting, contact the Patient & Family Resource Center. Most offices of the American Cancer Society can give you information or help you get a wig.
  • Learn where to buy or get a free wig or hair piece, and how to get help with head shaves and wig fittings.
  • Use a headwrap. Making headwraps out of scarves is easy. A headwrap can complement your looks. The emphasis should be on color and texture rather than on complicated tying techniques. The book Beauty and Cancer, by Diane Doan Noyes and Peggy Mellody, gives instructions on headwraps (as well as skin care, makeup, clothing, nutrition and exercise).
  • Try turbans, scarves, hats, or caps. Head coverings enhance appearance, protect against drafts, and help retain body heat.

Wear Attractive and Comfortable Clothing

  • Wear colorful clothing. Chemotherapy and radiation tend to make skin pale, sallow, or ruddy. Colors and interesting patterns can decrease the intensity of changes in skin tone.
  • If your face becomes very round or puffy, wear a V-shaped neckline.
  • If you have lost a lot of weight, try a round or oval neckline.
  • Avoid any garment that might puncture or break your central intravenous line, such as pins or front-clasping underwire bras. Soft fabrics drape best over catheters.

Take Care of Your Skin

Select skincare products that you like that are inexpensive, fragrance-free, hypoallergenic, and alcohol-free.

  • Cleanse your skin twice a day. Mild soap and water is the most basic cleanser and is especially good for oily skin. Cleansing creams are good for dry and normal skin because of their moisturizing effect. All cleansing products should be applied gently to avoid pulling the delicate surface of your skin. Use caution to avoid bruising the skin.
  • Use a moisturizer to help skin retain its moisture.
  • Avoid alcohol-based products.
  • Avoid hot water.
  • Wear sunscreen or protective clothing when outside.
  • Report any skin changes, such as rash or inflammation, to your doctor or nurse.
  • Get help from SCCA’s oncology store, Shine, where trained staff can help you find products that are most appropriate for you. Contact Shine at (206) 288-7560. Located one block west of REI in downtown Seattle.

Build Stamina with Exercise

  • Talk to your doctor before beginning any new exercise program.
  • Exercise daily. Exercise is one of the simplest and most effective ways to reduce stress, increase stamina, and gain a feeling of well-being.
  • Begin slowly with low-intensity exercise, such as walking. Let your body be your guide. Your body will tell you what your limits are. Don’t overdo it. A good rule of thumb is to never be out of breath; you should always be able to talk.