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Treatment Effects: Coping With Changes in Your Body Image

Reconstructive Surgery and Other Treatments Can Impact Your Body Image

Treatments for medical conditions like cancer and heart disease can leave lasting physical and mental scars. Research showed that 58% of people who underwent treatment for cancer had a negative body image as a result.  

Nicolette M. Bernhardt, PsyD, a board-certified clinical health psychologist at Northwestern Medicine, works with many patients who have undergone surgery, radiation and other treatments (like chemotherapy) that can change their physical appearance. As a cancer survivor herself, Dr. Bernhardt shares advice on how to cope with body image issues after a major medical event.

Shift Your Perspective

Dr. Bernhardt recommends using cognitive restructuring techniques, which focus on changing your thoughts from a negative one to a positive or neutral perspective. Some things you can do are:
  • Identify what you like about your body.
  • Look outside of your body image and explore other things that are important to who you are, like hobbies and relationships.
  • Challenge negative thoughts. For example, if you think negatively about your appearance, change that thought process to something more positive. If you think, “My body is no longer attractive,” reframe your thinking to, “My body is strong and has overcome a lot.”
  • Remember you are a survivor. You are more than just your physical appearance.

Dr. Bernhardt also says that it’s OK to readjust your goals and expectations throughout your recovery.

Get Professional Help

There are many different types of therapy available, and each patient needs to find what works best for them.

“There is no right or wrong type of therapy, but it is important to find a clinician that you feel comfortable with and feel that is a support for you on the journey,” says Dr. Bernhardt. “I treat patients from a cognitive behavioral approach, but some patients may prefer therapies focused more on overcoming a trauma such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing or EMDR.”

There is no right or wrong time to seek help for body image either.

Some patients seek professional help at diagnosis because learning that you have cancer, or another life-altering illness, can be traumatic and hard to process alone. Even if you feel that you are handling a diagnosis well, your feelings may change during your treatment journey.

Make Time to Grieve

According to Dr. Bernhardt, every patient going through a reconstructive surgery has an idea of what they’ll look like after surgery. Often, the reality does not fit what they expected.

It is necessary to grieve these changes.
— Nicolette M. Bernhardt, PsyD

“Sometimes there is no way to prepare for those changes in appearance. Some patients may experience these struggles before surgery and some may have body image issues three or four years after surgery,” she says. “To prepare for these changes, I recommend patients allow themselves time to grieve the changes they are experiencing. Grief applies to any loss, and it is important to work through the emotions associated with the loss associated with cancer or illness.”

Let Yourself Be Supported

Along with allowing yourself time to grieve, it is important to have a support team. This includes trusted family members and friends who you can reach out to. Joining a support group to connect with others going through the same experience can also help. Northwestern Medicine Living Well Cancer Resources offers support groups for anyone impacted by cancer (patients, caregivers and family members) as well as art, exercise and nutrition classes. All of these programs and services are provided at no cost.

To support your mental and emotional well-being, Dr. Berhnardt suggests meditation, deep breathing or visualization techniques focused on healing and stress management.

Give Yourself a Break

Everyone copes with major medical diagnoses and treatments differently. “Some people are able to recover quickly and focus on being alive and finding their ‘new normal.’ Others struggle with overcoming the trauma that they just endured. The main goal is to be patient,” says Dr. Bernhardt. “The body takes time to heal, and you need to allow it time to heal.”

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