Coping with body image and self-esteem worries

Body image is how you feel about how you look. Your body image affects how you see yourself overall as a person.

Self-esteem is how you see your personality, abilities, potential, values and interests. It is also important in how you relate to others.

Body image and self-esteem are closely linked.

Many cancer survivors are upset or angry at the way that cancer treatment has changed their bodies. Some people gain or lose weight. You may have lost your hair, or it’s come back a different colour. You may have had surgery to remove a part of your body, and you may have scars or a stoma. Some people may have problems eating, swallowing or speaking. Or you may still have a lot of fatigue and memory problems. Any change can be hard to accept and can affect your body image and self-esteem.

Even if you don’t have any physical changes that can be seen, you still might feel that others see you differently. You may think that others don’t understand you or can’t relate to you now. This can make you angry, upset or sad.

Be patient with yourself

For some changes, like hair loss from chemotherapy, it can help to remember that they are temporary. You’ll probably begin to look and feel more like your old self when treatment is over. But it can take more time to adjust to other changes, such as loss of a body part or surgical scars.

Over time, as you learn to cope with and accept them, the changes may just become part of everyday life. Some people even come to see the changes as signs of strength and survival.

Signs that you may need help coping

Some people take longer or struggle harder to come to terms with these changes. Sometimes, negative feelings about your changed body can affect your quality of life. For example:

  • You don’t want to leave your house because you don’t want people to see you.
  • You don’t want to date or meet new people.
  • You avoid touching, being affectionate or having sex with your partner.
  • You’re afraid to undress in front of your partner.
  • You won’t let your partner see your scars.
  • You’re embarrassed because you lost or gained weight.
  • You feel ashamed for having cancer.
  • You’re unable to accept yourself for who you are now.

If you have negative feelings about the changes to your body, it might be hard to talk about intimate changes, or you might worry that people will think you’re vain because you care about how you look. But these are very common, real concerns. Keeping your feelings to yourself can stop you from doing the things you enjoy or getting help.

It can help to talk about your feelings with someone you trust, like your partner, a close friend or a counsellor. Many people find that talking to other survivors, either one-on-one or in a support group (in person or online) is very helpful.

Your healthcare team can explain other options that could help with your body image. Surgery to reduce scars or rebuild the tissues that were removed can help with how you look or how your body works. You may be able to use a prosthesis that replaces the part of your body that was removed.

Expert review and references

Medical disclaimer

The information that the Canadian Cancer Society provides does not replace your relationship with your doctor. The information is for your general use, so be sure to talk to a qualified healthcare professional before making medical decisions or if you have questions about your health.

We do our best to make sure that the information we provide is accurate and reliable but cannot guarantee that it is error-free or complete.

The Canadian Cancer Society is not responsible for the quality of the information or services provided by other organizations and mentioned on, nor do we endorse any service, product, treatment or therapy.

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