Cancer and changes to your body

Some tips on how to deal with changes to your body during cancer treatment.

Cancer can bring with it many changes to your body, mind and emotions. Everyone is different and will cope with these changes in their own way. We caught up with Dr Sue Burney, head of Cabrini Monash Psycho-oncology Unit, to discuss some of the common changes to your body that you might face and some tips about how to deal with them.

Ripple effects

You've been diagnosed with cancer. Whether you’ve had surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy or some other form of treatment, physical and emotional changes are likely. 

If you’ve had surgery to remove the cancer, one of the major issues that some people face is the loss of ‘body integrity’, where a person's idea of how they should look does not match their actual appearance.

“Suddenly part of your body is missing,” says Dr Burney. “That's a big adjustment for some people to make. If it's a body part that has to do with your identity as a male or female such as a breast or testicle, you may feel the loss of femininity or masculinity. Some people feel that loss very keenly.

“My experience has been that women generally have a harder time dealing with the changes to their body that come along with cancer, compared with men. Some women say the loss of their hair is also loss of their femininity because for many women, their hair is one of their defining features. 

“The good thing is that human beings can adapt to change. But in the beginning it can be extremely hard, and may even lead to anxiety and depression.”

“The good thing is that human beings can adapt to change.”

Man in water

Get support

There is support available for people with cancer or chronic illness these days, including psychologists, counsellors, social workers, not-for-profit organisations, online forums, group meetings and educational sessions. Workshops and support groups can also allow people to learn from each other and share their ideas and stories. 

 “It can be very helpful to know that you are not alone. It's comforting and reassuring for many people,” says Dr Burney.

Anthony's story

“I was diagnosed with a rare primary mediastinal germ cell tumour – a tumour that develops from reproductive cells (egg cells in women and sperm cells in men), that can sometimes grow in other parts of the body – in 1994. By the time it was discovered, I had an 11-by-15-centimetre tumour in my chest that required three months of chemotherapy.

“Most of the changes that happened to my body were temporary: hair loss, numb extremities, nausea, loss of appetite, weight loss and fatigue. It really didn't faze me because I saw the changes as trivial when compared to the bigger picture. I think I got off lightly considering my doctor gave me a 20 per cent chance of surviving. Plus, it was summer so the hair loss was convenient.” 

There will be many changes to your body and emotions after cancer. “The majority of people generally cope quite well with the support of their family and friends,” says Dr Burney.

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