October is Breast Cancer Awareness month and whilst there is much good news about the half a million people living after a diagnosis of breast cancer in the UK today, the legacy of treatment and its side effects for a person can be huge. Treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and hormone drugs can leave a woman with many physical and emotional changes to deal with. These may include not being able to have children, loss of femininity, feelings of anxiety and depression, as well as not feeling sexy or sexually attractive.
We often hear the term 'body image' in relation to how we view our own bodies and how others view us. When you have had breast cancer, getting used to the changes that have taken place and adjusting to life after breast cancer can take time. Some people adapt very quickly to an altered body image, but for others it can affect their self esteem and self confidence for a considerable period of time and can have a major impact on all areas of their life.
We know that many people feel less confident about their bodies after breast cancer and in a recent poll of more than 600 women conducted by Breast Cancer Care the overwhelming majority of people who have had breast cancer (88%) said the disease and its treatment has had a negative impact on the way they now feel about their bodies. In addition, two thirds said it had affected their sexual and intimate relationships and many had experienced lower self esteem and a 'loss of self' compared to how they felt before their diagnosis.
The survey highlights the damaging impact the disease can have on body image, sex and intimacy, long after treatment has ended. Over half (52%) said they felt uncomfortable undressing in front of a partner. These findings are published as Breast Cancer Care launches a major advertising campaign which, through powerful images and stories of different women posing to reveal their mastectomy scars, shows that it can be possible to find confidence after breast cancer and that there is support available.
Most women will have surgery as part of their breast cancer treatment and surgical scars or losing a breast will affect how a woman feels about herself. After surgery, the first time a woman looks at her body can be difficult and for many this doesn't get easier overnight. Some women describe feeling unfeminine or unattractive, lop-sided or incomplete. Some women feel that having a breast reconstruction helps to improve their confidence and self esteem but it isn't the right solution for everyone.
With the loss of a breast comes the need for a well fitting bra and a breast prosthesis that fits into the bra cup to replace the shape of the breast that has been removed. Finding a well fitting bra can be challenging and our Lingerie Evenings offer the opportunity to be fitted and see how the lingerie looks on volunteer models who have all had breast cancer themselves. For some women, wearing a prosthesis is a temporary choice before they have reconstruction at a later date. Other women may choose not (or be unable) to have breast reconstruction and find wearing a prosthesis an effective long-term choice.
Some chemotherapy drugs will cause a person to lose the hair on their head as well as other hair such as eyebrows, eyelashes, underarm and body hair. Hair loss is almost always temporary and hair usually starts to grow back once chemotherapy has finished, sometimes sooner. When the hair grows back, the quality, texture and colour may be different from before and although in most cases it will eventually return to the colour and condition the transition from hair, to hair loss and regrowth can be both shocking and distressing.
Breast Cancer Care's HeadStrong service provides tips on how to look after your hair and scalp before, during and after treatment.
Many women feel unprepared for the weight they gain during and after breast cancer treatment. This is often the result of some of the drugs which can increase appetite, being less active than usual when having treatment, or wanting to eat more than usual when anxious. We know that weight gain for many women is a distressing side effect of treatment and 68% of women in our recent poll said that weight gain made them feel less confident about their body. Whilst losing weight can take time there are some simple changes that people can make to the way they eat and exercise which in the long term can help to lose weight and keep it off. We have lots of tips on healthy eating and getting active after treatment on our website.
Trying to come to terms with the side effects of treatment whether temporary or permanent can have a profound effect on the way a woman views her body. Yet many women fear that, compared to the life-threatening nature of their illness, body image issues are seen as trivial. We want our campaign this October to get people talking about this issue, so that everyone understands that a change to your body image is not a small price to pay.
Regaining confidence, talking openly with partners, family and friends about how you feel and accessing professional support when you need it can all help people reach a 'new normal' after breast cancer. Breast Cancer Care wants every patient to get the right support and information needed.
Find out more and watch and share our video to support the 500,000 women living with and beyond breast cancer at breastcancercare.org.uk/body