Breast cancer and its treatments can cause changes to your body and the way you look.
For example, after surgery you’ll be left with a scar or scars. You may have lost your hair if you had chemotherapy. Many people also put on weight during or after treatment.
Even though many of the effects of treatment can be temporary, they can still be very upsetting and have an important effect on how you see your body, not least because they can be an outward sign of having cancer.
Most women have surgery as part of their treatment. The first time you look at your body after the operation can be difficult. After surgery your breast/chest area is likely to be bruised and swollen, but this will improve over time.
For some women, surgery doesn’t affect how they feel about themselves, but many others find the changes more difficult to accept. Your confidence and self-esteem may be affected and you may feel unfeminine or unattractive.
Some women feel lop-sided or incomplete. You may feel very self-conscious, for example if you’re in a communal changing room, particularly at first.
Getting used to changes
Research has shown that the sooner you confront the physical changes to your body, the easier you may find it to gain confidence in the way you look. However, some people won’t have had the chance or courage to do this early on.
If you have a partner, letting them see the surgical scars and changes to your body sooner may also make being intimate easier in the long term.
The first few times you look at yourself might make you feel unhappy and shocked, and you may want to avoid looking at yourself again. However, the initial intense feelings you may have will lessen over time as you get more used to how you look now.
Steps to help you get used to looking at your body*
1. First, it may help to look at yourself in a full-length mirror fully clothed and pick out three things you really like about yourself.
2. After that, do the same wearing lingerie or underwear.
3. When you feel ready you can move on to looking at your naked body in a full-length mirror. Describe what you see and what you like or what makes you feel awkward or uncomfortable.
4. Look at and touch your scars or breast reconstruction so that you get used to how this now feels.
5. The more often you look at and feel your body, the less different it will seem.
*Adapted from Intimacy & sexuality for cancer patients and their partners, available from sexualadviceassociation.co.uk
Some women will continue to feel uncomfortable about looking at their body. If you’ve tried the techniques above and still find looking at your body difficult or upsetting, you may find it helpful to speak to a counsellor. Your GP or breast care nurse should be able to arrange this for you.
Many women want to try to restore their natural appearance after breast cancer surgery.
Some women feel that breast reconstruction enhances their quality of life and helps them to feel more confident overall after a mastectomy.
Some studies have shown that immediate breast reconstruction can help a woman adjust to the changes to her body. Most women who have breast reconstruction are satisfied with the result. However, not everyone’s experience is positive and some women feel unsure of their new shape or feel very aware of their new breast(s).
Breast reconstruction can only reconstruct a breast shape. It can’t bring back your breast or the sensations of the breast and nipple.
Find out more about breast reconstruction, including who can have a reconstruction.
A breast prosthesis is an artificial breast form that fits in your bra cup with or without a specially formed ‘pocket’ to replace all or part of the breast that has been removed.
For some women, wearing a prosthesis may be a temporary choice before they have reconstruction at a later date. Other women may choose not (or be unable) to have breast reconstruction and they may find wearing a prosthesis an effective and suitable long-term choice.
The choice of whether or not to have a reconstruction or wear a prosthesis is very personal and some women opt to do neither.
You may also like to read our information about:
Menopausal symptoms are a common side effect of treatment for breast cancer. This is because treatments can either stop the effect of female hormones or stop their production altogether.
Menopausal symptoms that may affect how you feel about your body, intimacy and sex include:
- hot flushes
- night sweats
- loss of desire
- changes to how you experience orgasm
- vaginal dryness and pain
Find out more about menopausal symptoms and what can help.
For tips on dealing with vaginal dryness and irritation, see our section on sex and breast cancer treatment.
Weight gain during and after treatment can happen for several reasons. Some drugs can increase appetite, you may be less active when having treatment, or you may eat more if you’re anxious or because your routine has changed.
Putting on weight can affect how you feel about your body and leave you with low self-esteem. However, some simple changes to the way you eat and exercise can help you lose weight and keep it off.
For more information, read about healthy eating and physical activity.
Hair loss and regrowth
Hair loss can be a distressing side effect of chemotherapy. Your hair may be an important part of how you feel about yourself and losing it can affect your confidence and self-esteem.
Hair loss is almost always temporary and hair usually starts to grow back once chemotherapy has finished, sometimes sooner.
Find out more about breast cancer and hair loss.
Lymphoedema is swelling of the arm, hand or breast area caused by a build-up of lymph fluid in the surface tissues of the body.
Having lymphoedema can affect you both physically and emotionally. It can make you feel differently about your body and mean that you have to adapt to yet another change in your body and appearance.
If you have lymphoedema you may have to wear a lymphoedema sleeve, which can be a visible sign that something is different about you. Wearing a sleeve may make you feel you have to change the way you dress – for example, no longer wearing sleeveless tops or dresses.
Talking about changes to your body, sex and intimacy can be difficult. But addressing your concerns is an important part of your breast cancer treatment and care. Our prompt list (PDF) is designed to help you discuss these issues with a healthcare professional or when calling our Helpline on 0808 800 6000.