Cancer can wreak havoc on our sense of body image. Surgeries and treatments can leave our bodies scarred, and looking and feeling quite different than before cancer. Compared to staying alive, this can seem like a minor issue. But for many survivors, it can weigh heavily and affect how we feel about ourselves and our treatments.
When it turns out that one of our body parts could kill us, most of us are happy to have it removed. We choose life instead of our breast, testicle, lung, uterus, or voice. But we live in a culture that is sometimes bizarrely obsessed with image, so that choice is painful. Besides dealing with our cancer, we also have to deal with a sometimes radically changed body.
One of the best ways to start feeling good about our new bodies is to get strong enough to continue doing all the things we enjoy, all the things that make life worth living.
Numerous studies have found that exercise, especially weight training, has a positive effect on cancer survivors' self-image. One recent study found that weight training improved breast cancer survivors' feelings about their bodies. Interestingly, the significant improvements in self-esteem had no correlation to how much strength was gained. Researchers surmised that the benefit came from spending time with their bodies in a positive way rather than the actual strength gained.
In some ways, adjusting to our new bodies after cancer surgery is not that different than learning to accept and love our bodies in the first place. We all have flaws, certain things about our bodies we would prefer were different. But part of the process of being a happy adult is learning to accept ourselves, and that's a process that can take years.
The trouble with body image after cancer is that it's all so sudden. Overnight our bodies are different. We've had some number of decades to get to know our bodies, and in a few hours they change, sometimes dramatically.
What we need most is time. It took us years as adults to be comfortable with who we are; it will take time to adjust to our new bodies.
But in the mean time, exercise. You'll feel better and be a little healthier. Stand tall and proud. Even if you don't feel that way yet, look like you do…and you might just find that, in fact, you are.
Need help with setting up an exercise plan? Please click here »
- ^ Schmitz, et al. Weight Lifting in Women with Breast-Cancer-Related Lymphedema. New England Journal of Medicine, Aug. 13, 2009, vol. 361, no. 7, pp. 664-673.