Many who have endured cancer treatment experience a blow to their self image, and cease to recognize the person looking back at them in the mirror.
However, it does not have to be that way! Here are some of the most common changes, and how to cope with them.
You may begin to see your skin transform into something you do not recognize. This is especially common in those with cutaneous lymphoma, and can result in red skin, ulcers, tumors, plaques, and dry patches. As a result, self image can suffer, and as a result, some people can even feel too embarrassed to socialize, which leads to loneliness and depression.
This has physical side effects from itching and discomfort to being too tired or pained to exercise, which can lead to other problems in self image.
Skin care routines may take extra time, and become difficult.
Occasionally, people will be uncomfortable with intimacy due to their changed skin and appearance. Fatigue due to topical treatment can also impact such activities.
Emotionally, people often become embarrassed and lonely, as well as depressed and scared about how the disease might progress and affect them. Anger can also occur, occasionally combined with a sense of unfairness.
One of the biggest aesthetic changes associated cancer is hair loss. This condition, referred to as alopecia, can occur on any area of the body, but most notably the head.
Of course, chemotherapy is often a cause of alopecia; however, if you are suffering from this, it is important to keep in mind that it is usually not permanent. When you complete chemotherapy, your hair will likely begin to grow back.
When one endures local or total body radiation, hair loss can also occur in the areas being treated. However, when this is the cause of the hair loss, the results are more frequently permanent. Lower doses offer a higher likelihood of hair regrowth, and typically starts 3-6 months after the treatment has been completed.
There are also ways to fight against alopecia, and common treatments are topical or intralesional steroids, Biotin, topical minoxidil, PUVA, and an array of others.
Of course, even without your own hair, you can feel beautiful and actualize your self image. Make sure you are taking care of yourself physically, showering regularly, taking the time to moisturize, keeping your skin as fresh as possible, etc. This will help you feel best in your body.
If you want to do yourself up, but feel as if usually what you would focus on is your hair, don't worry. There are ways to get fancy anyway. Put on an outfit you love, throw on some jewelry, and you'll be feeling great before you know it. You can also, of course, step up your makeup game. Classes are available, and some are even free for those who have battled cancer. When your makeup looks absolutely flawless, you won't have time to think about your lack of hair. Try out Look Good... Feel Better, they are a free, brand-neutral, non-medical national public service program with the aim of assisting those who have been through changes in their appearance due to cancer and its treatment. Feel free to visit their website for more information, or call 800-395-5665.
Of course, wigs are always an option! As well as hats, scarves, and more. If you would like to cover up, that does not take away from your beauty, but simply accentuates your stunning face even further.
Self-image and sexuality
As mentioned briefly, sexuality can suffer as people go through cancer, largely because they feel less connected with their bodies and sometimes become insecure about how their partner will view them. There are also physical setbacks, as some symptoms make the experience painful, and can burn and itch.
However, there is a way for couples to overcome the hurdle. First of all, it is important for your partner to understand that when you do not want to be sexual, it is not an insult to them and should not be speaking towards a larger problem in your relationship, but simply that you have been through an ordeal and your desire for sexual activity is not necessarily the same. But there will be times when you are not experiencing flare ups when you should feel close to your "normal" self sexually. Remember to always support each other outside of sex, and communicate thoroughly on what your needs and wants are, as to avoid miscommunication and misunderstandings.
One patient pointed out a necessity in getting through it with your partner, "when you have a disease, any kind of terrible disease, you need a partner who's very, very understanding. It's frustrating, from the care side, to not know what you can do to make the person you love feel better." So, communicate with the people in your life. That does not mean that you should only focus on getting your own point across, but listening to your partner and what they are going through. Try not to get too down in the dumps, and remember that you can accomplish anything you set your mind to, and that you are stronger together.
Believe it or not, many couples actually report that they feel closer once they get out on the other side, knowing that they can accomplish anything as a team.
Weight gain or weight loss
Both weight gain and weight loss are common when going through cancer treatment, and either can be fought against, although it can be very strenuous.
If you have lost more weight than you are used to, you may have to change your diet to account for significantly more calories than you might normally feel you need, or currently be hungry for.
If you have gained a lot of weight, it is important to not go overboard in not eating enough food. You still need to get sufficient nutrition, but altering your diet may be necessary. Or, you may require more exercise. This can sometimes be difficult, and it is important to consult your doctor when making major changes in either your diet or exercise.
If you are struggling with any of these, you might be wondering if it is ever going to be possible to live and enjoy life as you have previously. However, the answer is certainly yes - and many others have gone through exactly what you have. People have found coping mechanisms that aid in their enjoyment of life, and you can do the same.
It is crucial to have a support system that you trust - this can be anyone from someone you reach out to who has been through the same thing, a close friend, a family member, or a professional who can offer access to support.
You may want to give Look Good... Feel Better a try, or another resource called Shop Well With You. It is a not-for-profit organization that serves as a body image resource center for women who have been through cancer, as well as their caregivers and healthcare providers. They aim to assist in improving self image, and therefore quality of life.