Main content

Cancer And Mental Health: Body Image

By: Anna Crollman

For many cancer patients and thrivers, mental health and body image is the least talked about aspect, but in many ways, it is the most important. Cancer impacts not only your physical being and appearance but can also leave emotional and mental scars for years to come. The first step to fostering mental well-being and rebuilding your body image is recognizing the challenge and knowing how normal it is. You are not alone in these feelings.

You will likely look in the mirror and see a person staring back that you do not recognize. Parts of your body may have been amputated (in my case, my breasts) and if you have undergone chemotherapy or radiation, you may see a loss of hair and dry or irritated skin.

Finding acceptance for your body after the traumatic cancer diagnosis and treatment may be the hardest thing you will ever face. The physical scars may heal, but the emotional wounds will stay fresh, especially if left unaddressed. I’m now seven years out from my diagnosis, and I am still working on finding love and acceptance for my new body every day. But I can tell you it gets easier, and I feel so much more comfortable with my mental well-being and body image today than I did 2 months after my breast cancer diagnosis.

Cancer didn’t break me. Instead, it gave me the biggest gift — the gift of believing in myself. I realized that if I didn’t speak up for myself, believe in my worth and have confidence in my ability to succeed, no one else would. But there were specific steps I took to get to that mindset and grow over the years.

I will share five tips for body acceptance and mental well-being during and after cancer.

  1. Begin a practice of self-compassion
    For me, this took the form of journaling using Dr. Kristen Neff’s Mindful self-compassion workbook. The concept relies on a practice of recognizing your humanity/connection to others, showing yourself self-compassion as you would to a friend and then internalizing these practices over time. This practice was life changing for me. I realized that at my core I was worthy of love and kindness, and when I believed it, others did too. This paradigm shift did wonders for my confidence both physically and mentally.
  2. Be Open to Help
    Cancer treatment and your diagnosis can be very isolating and it’s easy to crawl into that bubble of fear and sadness and fence people off. Let people in and show them your darkness. You’ll be surprised who will show up for you when you show up authentically. Reach out for help from a mental health professional. Seeing a therapist with a cancer background really helped me process and cope with my depression and anxiety. The power of therapy and medication can be impactful for many cancer survivors. Depression impacts almost 80% of cancer patients, so know that you are not alone in needing this help. Asking for help is brave and shows strength, not weakness.
  3. Rebuild Your Relationship with Your Body
    This can be done through simple acts of touch such as using lotion on your body, touching your scars softly or trying a new type of movement. You may feel betrayed by your body and these small acts of physical touch and movement can begin to rebuild that positive bond. For me, hot yoga and walking were healing processes to reconnect with my physical being in a positive way.
  4. Reflect on what your body has been through, and say “thank you”
    Whether it’s chemotherapy, a surgery or hair loss, our body and our mindset on our body changes during cancer. We may feel shame or embarrassment, and not want to look at what we see as imperfections. But what if you looked at your body with different eyes? How would you feel differently if you looked at yourself with loving eyes? Take a moment to stop and recognize how incredibly strong your body is. We are so focused on recovery and moving on, we forget where we have been. For me, it was a healing process to look back at photos from my treatment and say “thank you” to my body. Seeing my physical change became a reminder of how much I was growing and healing. I also found Christopher Germer’s workbook “Teaching the Mindful Self-Compassion Program: A Guide for Professionals” life-changing for how I saw and talked about my body.
  5. Show Yourself Grace in Healing
    While I hope the ideas above help you foster a positive body image and rebuild your confidence, I know it won’t happen overnight. There will be bad days, and tears and sadness along the way. I want you to remember to show yourself kindness and grace. It’s OK to feel down and struggle. Take those emotions, sit with them and then find something from your reflection to carry you forward. The self-compassion strategies by Dr. Kristin Neff encouraged me to see the common humanity in all my struggles and see myself with more grace.
Wherever you are on your healing journey, I hope these tips can help you continue to build mental and emotional resilience. You are worthy of love and your body is precious. I hope you’ll dedicate yourself to the lifelong process of fostering a positive body image and mental well-being.
Anna Crollman in front of mirror
Anna Crollman is a member of the La Roche-Posay Cancer Supporters Squad, an advisory board of cancer advocates who partner with the brand on our oncology commitment.
Orientation message
For the best experience, please turn your device