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Body Image Issues for Cancer Patients

Network - Winter 2011

By Lana Maciel

A cancer diagnosis brings many changes in a patient’s life — physical, emotional and mental.

Patients may become self-conscious about how cancer has changed their appearance, and this may affect their lifestyle or self-esteem. It’s a difficult adjustment, and one that physicians rarely address in the exam room.

Enter MD Anderson’s Body Image Therapy Service, a program to help patients manage and cope with body image concerns, increase their self-confidence in social situations and discuss treatment decisions that will affect their outward appearance.

For patients whose cancers cause disfigurement, doctors and counselors help by discussing reconstructive surgery options or by better preparing patients for physical changes they will experience.

The program — the first in the nation to focus on body image issues of cancer patients — was created two years ago by Michelle Cororve Fingeret, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Behavioral Science.

Since then, Fingeret has seen 200 patients, and there are plans to expand the program’s services. Currently, 80% of her work with the Body Image Therapy Service is focused on research, with the remaining 20% spent counseling clients.

During the sessions, patients can discuss the psychological and emotional aspects of cancer that few doctors address during consultations and visits.

“Many patients are embarrassed or uncomfortable talking about body image,” Fingeret says. “When working with them, I validate their concerns about their body. I tell them it’s OK to worry, and it’s OK to cry; it’s natural to feel that way.

“I strongly encourage cancer patients to talk with their doctors about body image issues. This is extremely important before treatment so they’ll be better prepared for what to expect in terms of disfigurement or functional loss. Patients with unrealistic body image expectations end up having a much more difficult time adjusting.”

Healing the whole person

While the Body Image Therapy Service focuses mostly on head and neck and breast cancer patients, Fingeret says she hopes to see the program expand to all patients.

“Every cancer patient experiences body image concerns,” she says. “It’s relevant and applicable to all.”

Fingeret says most of her patients struggle with isolation because they become unhappy with their bodies. Through counseling, she helps them regain social confidence. It’s all part of a larger goal for medical professionals at MD Anderson — treating every stage of a patient’s cancer journey.

“As we see a growing population of cancer survivors, it’s important to focus on treating both the illness and the whole person,” she says. “There’s a movement toward that nationwide, and at MD Anderson as well.”

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center