Cancer can feel like the ultimate form of identity theft, especially for Adolescents and Young Adults (AYA) between 15 – 39 years old. Along with the mental and emotional stress of a life-threatening diagnosis, treatment can alter your physical appearance, deplete self-confidence, and leave you feeling broken. Your body becomes an obstacle to your goals even if you are normally confident and seemingly invincible. AYAs are particularly vulnerable to the trauma of distorted body image because of an already challenging phase of life. Entering society, joining the work force, contemplating marriage, and starting a family are overwhelming enough without the burden of a disfiguring disease.
Physical burdens during treatment will vary. Some will be short-term, some will be long-term, yet all will be a challenge. However, knowledge and preparation can help you cope with the transition.
Here are a few potential changes you may encounter during treatment:
- Skin changes
- Swelling of the face, arms, or legs
- Decrease in physical skills such as athletic capabilities, balance, and agility
- Weakness or loss of stamina
- Changes in sexual functioning (e.g., infertility, early menopause, loss of sexual interest, erectile difficulties)
- Weight changes
- Hair loss from radiation therapy or chemotherapy
- Scars from surgery
- Loss of a body part
Even changes that aren't as visible to others, such as fatigue, a hidden scar, infertility, or early menopause can make you feel different and insecure. Over time, the impact of physical changes will lessen. Some will even disappear. It helps to adopt a positive outlook and understand that cancer doesn’t define you. Here are a few things to consider:
- Focus on things you can control
- Stay actively involved in life
- Get help when needed
- Talk openly about sex and intimacy with loved ones or a counselor
- Connect with other people dealing with similar body image issues
Despite your greatest efforts, there will be moments of fear and insecurity. Reach out to others for help. Camaraderie can restore hope and induce a stronger sense of self on your journey to fight cancer. The AYA Cancer Program at RPCI offers non-biased, emotional support to patients in need, and will help you manage physical changes during treatment and beyond. Here are some additional resources to help you cope with body image issues:
- Teens Living with Cancer offer a social outlet for teens coping with the many struggles of cancer treatment including body image issues.
- Look Good Feel Better is dedicated to improving self-esteem and quality of life to patients undergoing cancer treatment. Complimentary beauty sessions offer support, courage, and community during your journey.
- Community Cancer Resource Center (CCRC) at RPCI has a wig program for patients and the community undergoing cancer treatment.
It’s easy to dwell on what your disease can take from you: your hair, your energy, your comfort, your future plans, pieces of your body. But try to remember that cancer can’t take what truly matters—your identity.