Many people struggle with their self-esteem after a diagnosis of breast cancer. Isabelle Cullis suggests some simple ways to help you feel better about yourself.

self esteem, woman, smile

Self-esteem describes how we think and feel about ourselves, and usually refers to the value we place on ourselves as a person. Unpleasant or stressful experiences can lower our self-esteem and positive experiences and achievements can help improve it.

Someone with low self-esteem tends to have a negative opinion of themselves and finds it difficult to recognise anything positive they’ve done or nice qualities they have. It’s common to have high expectations of ourselves and be more critical of ourselves than others. And it can be difficult to ignore our inner critic when it pipes up frequently.

Breast cancer and self-esteem

Breast cancer brings many changes that can have a big impact on self-esteem.

The physical effects of treatment (such as pain, fatigue and sleep problems) may mean you can’t do the things you used to, and this may persist for months or even years after treatment.

Changes to your body image – through surgery or other treatment side effects such as hair loss, lymphoedema and weight changes – can have a huge impact on how you feel about yourself. They may leave you feeling less feminine or unattractive.    

A sense of uncertainty and loss of control can also affect your self-esteem, as can a change in your role. You might suddenly go from being an independent person – whether you’re working or being a full-time mother or carer – to being a vulnerable patient or ‘that person with breast cancer’.

Low self-esteem can have a big impact on your mood and everyday life. Many people experience a loss of confidence and motivation, and it’s common to feel low and anxious when you have breast cancer. You might avoid doing things you normally would, like seeing friends, attending social events and even engaging in hobbies or work. Low self-esteem often affects your relationships too.

10 ways to improve self-esteem

Improving your self-esteem can be challenging and often takes time and effort. But there are some simple things you can do every day to help you feel better about yourself.

1. Celebrate the small things

Focusing on positives can help us improve our mood and break negative thinking habits. Try noting down some positive things at the end of each day. Think about things that have happened, something you may have done or a compliment you received.

2. Set yourself a challenge

Maybe you want to get back into a hobby you used to enjoy or learn something new. Make an achievable plan and set yourself a realistic timeframe. Once you’ve achieved it, congratulate yourself and allow others to congratulate you too.

3. Be more mindful

We can easily get caught up in our thoughts and believe them to be facts. But in reality, thoughts are just thoughts and are not necessarily true. When you notice unhelpful thoughts such as ‘I’m rubbish’ or ‘I should be able to cope’, try adding the phrase ‘I’m having the thought that…’ before the thought, or say: ‘There goes that inner critic again’. Techniques like these can help us take our thoughts less seriously.

4. Be compassionate to yourself

Self-compassion is not about self-indulgence, but more about understanding when we’re struggling and not punishing ourselves for it. Watch out for that inner critic, and when you notice it ask yourself: ‘What would I say to a friend?’

5. Seek out supportive people

Surround yourself with supportive people who love and value you. You could also try Breast Cancer Care’s online Forum or Someone Like Me service.

6. Don’t compare yourself to others (or yourself before cancer)

We all fall into the trap of comparing ourselves to other people, but we can also compare ourselves to our ‘old self’. For example, you might think about all the things you could do before cancer. This often results in us feeling low and bad about ourselves. Try to look at how far you have come instead and how you can continue to progress – this will help motivate you as well as improve your self-esteem.

7. Make time for yourself

We often don’t spend enough time doing something we love or that makes us feel good about ourselves. Try to factor in some ‘me time’ each day or week and don’t allow yourself to feel guilty – you’ve earned it.

8. Set realistic expectations

Cut yourself some slack! Often we feel we should be able to manage or achieve certain things and we beat ourselves up when we can’t. Remind yourself of everything you’ve been through and pace yourself. There is such a thing as ‘good enough’.

9. Look after yourself

Eat well and exercise regularly. Improving physical wellbeing can improve your emotional wellbeing too. Exercise can give you an energy and mood boost, and eating well reminds you you’re worth looking after.

10. Get support if you need it

If you’ve tried these tips and found they haven’t worked for you, speak to someone about getting some support. It can be challenging to ask for help, but your treatment team and GP will be aware of local counselling and psychology services that can help you explore these types of issues and support you to feel better about yourself.

Isabelle has worked as a psychology practitioner in the NHS and now helps co-ordinate Breast Cancer Care’s Moving Forward service.

Content created December 2016; next planned review 2018