How to cope with physical changes resulting from cancer treatment

Among American and Canadian women, breast cancer ranks as either the most commonly occurring cancer or a close second. The World Cancer Research Fund says there were two million new cases of breast cancer in 2018 across the globe, while the American Cancer Society notes the chance that a woman will die from breast cancer is about 2.6 percent.

Fortunately, for most women, a cancer diagnosis is not terminal. Early detection and thorough treatment helps to improve the five-year survival rate, especially for those with cancer that is localized to the breast or has only minimally spread. Women may have to undergo various forms of treatment, including radiation, chemotherapy and surgery.

The National Cancer Institute notes that, while they’re effective, breast cancer treatments can cause changes that affect a woman’s physique, body image and sexuality. Some changes will be short-term, such as hair loss or fatigue. Others may be permanent, such as breast loss or scarring from lumpectomy and mastectomy. Fertility also may be affected, potentially compromising a woman’s ability to get pregnant after treatment.

Regardless of the changes, breast cancer patients must realize they are not alone. Scores of women have experienced similar feelings and can be sources of support and inspiration during recovery. In addition, a handful of strategies can help women confront the physical changes resulting from cancer treatment in a positive way.

  • Understand that it is okay to feel frustrated, upset or angry with the changes that have occurred. It doesn’t make you shallow. Anyone has the right to grieve treatment options that have changed their bodies in various ways.
  • Attempt to focus on how cancer treatment and the entire experience has made you stronger and more in tune with life. Cancer can be a wake-up call that sparks positive changes going forward. Focus on your strengths, rather than on what you cannot reverse.
  • Look for new ways to enhance your appearance, like a new hairstyle. A makeup makeover also can help. Some women like to splurge on a stylist who can help shape a wig or offer them some innovative ideas to change their appearance.
  • Speak with a doctor about what you can do to treat and camouflage skin changes from treatment. Topical creams may alleviate redness or dry patches while other remedies can minimize surgical scarring.

The changes in body image that breast cancer survivors experience tend to be connected to the features that society characterizes as “feminine.” Loss of one or both breasts can greatly affect body image. However, if mastectomy surgery is necessary, speak with your doctor about reconstruction possibilities. There also are very good prosthetic inserts and bras that can mimic the look of natural breasts under clothing.

Physical changes are common after cancer treatment. Women can try a handful of strategies to successfully confront these changes.

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