There’s no doubt about it: Cancer can ravage a person’s body. It can make you more self-conscious about your looks. It can make you view your body as the enemy. It can make it so that you don’t really recognize your own reflection.
My grandmother had cancer for many years. When we came to America in 1989, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Since we lived together, I witnessed her daily struggles. I was only seven but I still remember. The one thing that many of us, though, forget is that after the grueling treatments, there’s also the body image aspects to consider.
But I won’t even begin to try to understand what someone who has or had cancer is experiencing, but I do want to focus on how you can work to improve your body image if you’re fighting a condition like cancer (or a lifelong illness).
I’m thrilled to present my interview with Michelle Cororve Fingeret, Ph.D, a psychologist and assistant professor at the Department of Behavioral Science at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.
Michelle launched the Body Image Therapy Program at MD Anderson, where she helps cancer patients with various body image issues. (BTW we also completed the same clinical psych program at Texas A&M! But I graduated with my masters.)
Below, Michelle talks about her research on cancer and body image and her work at MD Anderson Cancer Center.
Q: Your research has focused on body image concerns in various cancer populations. What has your research revealed on this topic?
A: My research at MD Anderson Cancer Center has shown that body image concerns are extremely prevalent in cancer patients – the vast majority of patients acknowledge experiencing concerns or embarrassment about bodily changes that result from cancer and its treatment at some point following diagnosis.
It is important to emphasize that body image is not just about how one views his or her physical appearance – but includes the way you perceive, think, and feel about your entire body and the way it functions. Cancer patients that have difficulties swallowing or speaking or experience numbness/loss of sensation, for example, can have profound body image disturbance similar to those with more obvious appearance-related changes.
Patients feel especially guilty and ashamed for having concerns about disfigurement and other appearance-related changes and are often reluctant to discuss these issues with their doctor. In my work, we have found significant body image concerns for patients across the entire spectrum of cancer treatment – including prior to and during treatment and well into the period of cancer survivorship.
My work also sheds light on the very personal and subjective nature of body image. There can be a significant discrepancy between the way a patient views his or her own body image and how others perceive and view the patient. As an example, some patients with extremely small scars or very minimal functional deficits have great difficulty coping with body image changes while other patients with more extensive disfigurement can cope quite well.
Q: You developed a psychosocial service called the Body Image Therapy Program for cancer patients. What types of body image concerns do these patients tend to come in with?
A: This program was designed specifically to work with patients at MD Anderson Cancer Center that have head and neck or breast cancer, because these two groups are known to experience considerable difficulties adjusting to body image changes resulting from cancer and its treatment.
The types of body image concerns patients come in with tend to vary based on where they are in their treatment process. For instance, I work with a lot of patients prior to undergoing surgery to discuss difficult treatment decisions they are facing that will affect their body and to help better prepare them for upcoming body image changes they are about to experience.
Immediately following surgery I work with patients to help them adjust to the initial shock of disfigurement and functional loss – which can be temporary or more prolonged.
Throughout active treatment and into the period of cancer survivorship I work with patients to learn new coping strategies for managing body image concerns, to help increase their self-confidence in social situations, and to discuss ways to communicate more effectively with people about their appearance and body image changes.
Q: What are some ways you help cancer patients improve their body image at the Body Image Therapy Program?
A: I impress upon patients that their body image concerns are normal and valid, and help them understand just how common these difficulties are for individuals with cancer. I talk with them about the way body image concerns are interfering with their lives and help them set goals to resume activities they are avoiding.
I discuss with them thinking patterns that contribute to their body image distress and help them challenge faulty appearance-related assumptions to shift their focus and reduce the importance they are placing on their appearance.
I work with patients to become more mindful of their body experiences, and to learn ways to better nurture and appreciate their bodies.
Thanks so much, Michelle, for your insight into such an important topic, and for the fantastic work that you do! Please stay tuned for part two of our interview tomorrow.
If you’re a cancer survivor, do you struggle with your body image? How have you dealt with your concerns? Do you have any tips for improving body image?