Your Body After Breast CancerSep 28, 2012
Newlywed Sarah Lien didn’t want her husband seeing her bald. When they married two years earlier, the tips of her vibrant hair would brush against her face and tickle her healthy pink cheeks. Then, at age 24, she was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer in 2010.
“I had no control over what my body was doing,” says Lien, who underwent aggressive chemotherapy before having both breasts removed, followed by radiation therapy and breast reconstruction. Her hair fell out, she lost the color in her face, and her weight yo-yoed.
“After getting out of the shower, you see your port scars and mastectomy scars and your radiation burns,” says Lien, of Snohomish, Washington. “You think, what just happened to me? I don’t even recognize this person.”
Lien is one of hundreds of thousands of women and men who each year have their physical appearance altered by breast cancer. For many survivors, these unwelcome changes pose a new struggle in the cancer journey. But there are ways to improve body image and appreciate a new post-cancer body.
A changing body
Breast cancer can temporarily change the way you look. In the short-term, treatment can cause hair loss, fingernail changes, skin discoloration, weight gain and weight loss. Permanent physical changes can include scars from surgery and removal of 1 or both breasts.
“Many women tell me that hair loss was almost as emotionally difficult for them as the loss of a breast,” says psychiatrist Mary Jane Massie, MD, who counsels breast cancer patients at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. “Most of us have a way we like to present ourselves to the world, so going out bald is not what most women want to do, or even imagine doing.”
For Nicole Dover, only a few short weeks elapsed between her breast cancer diagnosis and her hair falling out from chemotherapy. “I wasn’t ready for that,” says Dover, 26, who was diagnosed the same day she moved back into her college dorm for her junior year. “That’s one thing that is hard to hide. I could hide my breasts, but not having my hair was huge.”
Both of Dover’s breasts were removed and later reconstructed. She also received radiation therapy. Having lost her hair and breasts and having gained weight, Dover admits there were bad days. But from the insecurity felt on those bad days, she developed a confidence-building mantra: I’m a survivor. I’m still a woman of worth.
“The scars I have will be with me forever. But by embracing my strengths and determination to go through cancer, I learned to be comfortable in my new skin, in this new body,” says Dover, of Bel Air, Maryland.
At Sloan-Kettering, Massie tells women to keep a simple fact in mind: You’re still you. “The core part of you is still there. Only the superficial has changed,” Massie says.
Regaining a positive body image
Rebuilding confidence in your appearance isn’t something you have to do alone. Lien and Dover both received help from Look Good Feel Better, a free program developed by the Personal Care Products Council in cooperation with the American Cancer Society and the Professional Beauty Association/National Cosmetology Association. Look Good Feel Better has helped hundreds of thousands of women with cancer since 1989. The program offers free workshops and webinars on wigs and turbans, skin and nail care, cosmetics, accessories and personal styling. The Society holds about 16,000 workshops each year in roughly 2,800 facilities nationwide, including Memorial Sloan-Kettering.
From a workshop in Washington, Lien took home a brown wig and a platinum blonde wig. “I’d wear the blonde one when I was feeling spunky. People never knew which one I’d show up wearing,” says Lien, who recently joined her mother for a Look Good Feel Better workshop after her mother’s third breast cancer diagnosis. Women can also find wigs and other products in the American Cancer Society’s "tlc"™ (Tender Loving Care) catalog.
Maintaining appearance while going through treatment is important for almost everyone, says Massie. “Whether for our spouses, children, friends, coworkers or people in the community, we want to look like the person we’ve always looked like,” says Massie, who has been involved with the Look Good Feel Better program since the start.
Talking to other survivors as part of a support group can also help, says Massie. Women can give and get emotional support and share tips on how to look and feel their best. Support services offered by the American Cancer Society include:
- Reach to Recovery: Women and men with breast cancer receive one-on-one support from a trained breast cancer survivor.
- Cancer Survivors Network: An online community of people with cancer and their loved ones that provides peer support through discussion boards, chat rooms and other features.
- WhatNext: A social networking site where cancer patients and survivors can gain and share insights with each other about the cancer experience.