Not overlooking how patients see themselves
Many times, the focus for cancer patients is on making it through treatment. They’re asked to “keep calm and carry on.” But the internal stress patients endure — particularly related to ways their bodies change as a result of treatment — can torpedo their confidence level and ability to enjoy everyday activities.
Feeling good about your appearance not only builds self-confidence, it also can have a positive effect internally by reducing stress.
Michelle Fingeret, Ph.D., works with patients and cancer survivors as the director of MD Anderson’s Body Image Therapy Program, which supports patients who undergo reconstructive surgery after cancer treatment.
Fingeret sees firsthand how low self-esteem and body image concerns foster negative stress.
“Body image often is an overlooked component of cancer treatment,” says Fingeret, associate professor in Behavioral Science. “Patients and survivors typically won’t address body image concerns with their doctor because they don’t want to appear ungrateful for surviving cancer.”
After all, not everyone survives cancer, and shouldn’t they be happy with just beating this horrible disease?
In reality, the majority of patients who undergo reconstructive surgery resulting from breast and head and neck cancers, for example, often are worried about how their body changes will affect their relationships with loved ones and friends, what others will think about their changed appearance and how they themselves will come to terms with these changes. Survivors often struggle with anger, depression, anxiety and feelings of isolation. Getting back into the swing of things or adjusting to their new “normal” can be difficult. The emotions associated with treatment and the physical changes resulting from treatment can be intense and trigger internal distress.
“It’s important that we address all of the patient’s concerns at the beginning of any kind of treatment so the patient knows that being worried about body image is normal and appropriate,” Fingeret says.