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Couple and Sexual Relationship

Body Image and Sexuality: Cancer

What is body image?

Body image is how people feel about how they see themselves. Changes to the way people look can affect how they feel. Sexuality can be closely linked to body image.

How is body image related to sexuality?

Everyone is sexual no matter what their age, gender, sexual orientation, culture, or belief system is.

Body image is an important part of your identity. Sexuality is about more than just behavior. What this means is that sexuality is not just about sexual activity. A person can feel sexual, even if they aren’t having sex. Sexuality may also be related to confidence and self-esteem. Sexuality may be affected by changes to your body image. Sexuality can mean something different for everyone and it change over time.

Sexuality includes:

  • a connection between your feelings, body, and behaviour
  • body image
  • your ability to have children
  • how your sex organs work

How can cancer affect my body image?

Many people struggle with changes in their body image during or after their cancer treatment. Body changes related to your diagnosis and treatments can change the way you see yourself. Changes to the body may be temporary or permanent, but they’re all related to a change in your body image. Some examples are:

  • body changes from surgery
  • hair loss
  • weight loss or gain
  • having a stoma
  • lymphedema
  • decreased sensation
  • loss of body parts or organs
  • scars
  • fatigue, loss of stamina, or loss of energy
  • changes in how the sex organs work
  • treatment-induced menopause
  • feeling differently about how you look
  • feeling like your partner has changed his or her feelings about you
  • worry about dating and what future partners will think about you

I feel different now about myself and my body—what can I do?

It’s common for your confidence to change after you’ve had cancer. Some people feel like their body let them down by getting sick. The more you can see your body for what it is and realize that you made it through your cancer treatment, the more helpful it can be. Sometimes roles in relationships can also change. This might mean that you’re more dependent on your partner for a while. This can also affect how people feel about themselves. Changes in self-image are common, but they aren’t always permanent. The more open you are to talk about it with your friends and family, the less isolated you’ll feel dealing with the changes.

I find it hard to undress in front of my partner—what can I do?

Many people feel different about their bodies and may not show their bodies to their partners on purpose. They might not even look at their body in the mirror. If you don’t look at your body, the fear of facing your body changes can often get worse. The more you avoid doing this—the harder it gets. Try looking at yourself as early as possible after your treatment, even if you just start with a few seconds and work your way up to getting more comfortable.

When partners love each other, it often doesn’t matter what you look like naked. This love doesn’t change because people’s bodies change. If you don’t let your partner see you semi-clothed or naked, they’re missing an important and pleasurable sensual experience.

If this is hard for you, start slowly, like in a darker room or by covering some of your body parts that you’re less comfortable showing. You can slowly start to show more over time as you get more comfortable with your body. If you’re uncomfortable being undressed and this prevents you from being sexual with your partner, you can try having sex with some clothes on.

If you’re comfortable looking at yourself, be kind and accept your body. Over time, you’ll get more comfortable with how you look. Think of it like when you get into a hot shower. The longer you stay in, the more you turn up the hot water. You get used to the heat as you feel it and can handle more.

Talk with your partner about how you feel, especially if you’re concerned about what your partner thinks. You may find it reassuring to hear from your partner that you’re still loved and cherished even if you’re worried about how you look. Many people need to feel comfortable with themselves before they’re comfortable in front of their partner.

Is reconstruction right for me?

Treatment for some types of cancer may include surgery to remove a body part that might be noticed because it’s on the outside of the body (e.g., breast, testicle). This is different than having surgery to remove a body part from inside the body (e.g., kidney).

Sometimes it may be an option to have surgery to replace these parts with a prosthetic. Ask your healthcare provider about what your options are. There are many types of reconstruction, but your options will depend on your body and the type of cancer you have. It helps to learn more about reconstruction options by asking your healthcare provider questions and talking to other people who have had reconstruction. It’s important to remember that nothing is a perfect fix and you won’t look the same as you did before surgery. Most people have some complications after surgery like scarring or decreased feeling in the area (sensation). If you’re thinking about reconstruction, talk to your healthcare provider or go to an information session.

Practicing Self-Care

While you’ve been dealing with cancer, you’ve had other responsibilities like parenting, caring for family members, and seeing friends. When was the last time you stopped to care for yourself? Self-care is about stopping and thinking about what your needs are, taking the time to care for yourself, and being as kind to yourself as you are to others. You have to stop and take care of yourself before you can care for others. If you take a trip on a plane, you’re told to put on your own oxygen mask before you help someone else in an emergency—this is the same idea.

To start caring for yourself:

  • do activities that you enjoy
  • when you feel overwhelmed, it’s okay to say no to offers or opportunities
  • get yourself a treat (e.g., a fancy coffee or tea) and take some time out of your day to enjoy it
  • go for a massage
  • turn off your phone and read a book or watch a movie
  • spend time with people who help you feel good about yourself
  • take a warm, relaxing bath

What if I feel different—tenser, less happy, and/or more tired?

It’s important to talk to your healthcare provider about your feelings, mood changes, or signs of depression or anxiety, which are common in people with cancer. About 40% of people with cancer feel very distressed, so it’s a good idea to see a doctor in case you need treatment. Anxiety and depression can be treated. If you feel sad almost every day or are losing interest in activities and things you used to enjoy, tell your doctor. If you’re having trouble sleeping, are more stressed and/or irritable, or you worry more, tell your doctor. You can also think about seeing a counsellor for support.

Is there anything I can do to feel better about myself?

These ideas might help you feel better about yourself:

  • if you’ve lost your hair, talk to someone about wigs, hats, or head scarves
  • get a prosthesis that fits well or think about reconstructive surgery (talk to your doctor to find out if this is possible for you)
  • wear clothes that cover you more (e.g., dress in layers)
  • do light exercise to help prevent and decrease fatigue and make your body stronger
  • take time to talk openly to your friends and family
  • contact the Look Good Feel Better Program

Who can I talk to for information about body image and sexual health?

Cancer and treatments can be challenges for your body image and sexual health. Talking about these changes can be very hard. If you can talk to your partner, it might help you deal with these changes.

If you’d like more help, talk to:

  • your doctor or nurse
  • someone in your community who you trust
  • any healthcare provider from your healthcare team​
  • Psychosocial and Spiritual resources: ​​

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