Boost Your Body Confidence and Feel Great During Chemo

By Dorothy Foltz-Gray
Reviewed by John D. Hainsworth, MD, and Roy S. Weiner, MD

When Lucille Saraco was undergoing treatment for breast cancer, she wore earrings, perfume, a pink scarf, nail polish and lipstick—even to her chemo appointments. “It made me feel feminine,” says the 60-year-old New York City resident, who had a mastectomy and lost her hair. “I loved my breasts and was sad to lose them, but it was an exchange for life. My body is different, but I’ve learned to work with it and live a full life.”

Lucille is hardly alone. After treatment, many breast cancer patients struggle with their body image, or their perception of their attractiveness. According to a recent study in the journal Psycho-Oncology, half of breast cancer patients experienced two or more body image problems—such as feeling less feminine or sexually unappealing—in the first few months after treatment. That’s understandable, since chemotherapy can cause hair loss and trigger menopause, which often leads to weight gain. “Many people feel their bodies have betrayed them,” says Alyson Moadel, PhD, director of the psychosocial oncology program at the Montefiore Einstein Center for Cancer Care in New York City.

Fortunately, a growing number of cancer centers are offering body image counseling. We asked experts at several of these programs to give their best advice on coping with your post-cancer body:

Get support.
During her treatment for breast cancer, Sheree Neir lost a breast, her hair, eyebrows and eyelashes—and gained 80 pounds from steroid treatments. “When I looked in the mirror, I saw a bald, fat woman with a scar like a railroad track where my breast used to be,” recalls the 43-year-old mother of two in Fort Lauderdale, FL. She worried about how her husband would view her, and she withdrew from anyone who wasn’t in her closest circle of friends. “I didn’t want to see them,” she recalls. “I looked like an alien.”

Eventually, Sheree made peace with her appearance by reaching out to her husband, closest friends and a hospital support group. When she showed her best friend, Monica, her chest after one breast was removed, Monica said, “Sheree, your chest is winking.” “Any time there was a bad moment after that, Monica would wink at me, and we would burst out laughing,” says Sheree. Monica’s reaction helped her realize that Monica still loved her.

Pamper yourself.
“Do things that feel pleasurable, such as stretching, getting a manicure and practicing yoga,” says Michelle Cororve Fingeret, PhD, director of the body image therapy program at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. “They will help you reconnect with your body.”

Be honest with your partner.
“You may feel shame or worry about rejection,” says Patricia Mumby, PhD, director of health psychology at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, IL. Still, it’s important to share your feelings. “Consider saying, ‘I’m worried about what you think of the way I look,’ ” says Fingeret. “ ‘I’d like to tell you what I’ve been feeling, and then I’d like to hear from you.’ ”

Exercise often.
Regular exercise will fight fatigue and weight gain—and will reawaken good feelings about your body by helping you feel stronger and healthier, says Mumby.

Tap into the inner you.
“Some cancer patients discover creative talents, such as writing, painting and singing,” says Moadel. Others find meaning in helping fellow patients. Lucille, for instance, started counseling breast cancer patients about reconstruction. “I wanted to help others,” she says. “Women need to see what other women have been through.”

Focus on your assets.
“Decide what you do like about your body—and what you can enhance with clothes and makeup,” says Fingeret. For more on looking your best, visit the American Cancer Society website: lookgoodfeelbetter.org

Published March 2014

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