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Cancer Patients Body Image isn’t just about
looking good, it’s battle for identity
Newswise, June 26, 2011-- We all know shorts and swimsuit season is
right around the corner, but what if body
image issues went past wiggling thighs and a
bulging tummy to a deeper level? What if the
body image issues were part of a life and
death struggle? For people with cancer, the
diagnosis not only brings a fight for life,
but may also introduce a battle for personal
“When you look in a mirror you expect to see a certain reflection,
but as a result of the cancer as well as the
treatment, the image reflected can be very
different. This can be frightening and
overwhelming, bringing its own struggles and
pain,” said Patricia Mumby, PhD, director of
Health Psychology for the Department of
Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences at
Loyola University Medical Center and a
specialist in psychosocial oncology at the
Cardinal Bernardin Cancer Center.
Cancer and cancer treatments often alter a person’s body.
Some affect a person’s appearance while others impact how a person
functions. Some changes are temporary, like
hair loss, weight gain or loss and fatigue.
Others are more permanent, such as surgical
scars or an ostomy.
“Patients who feel uncomfortable in their own skin he or she may
have problems feeling whole. They might stop
socializing and may have relationship
issues,” said Mumby.
“Friends and family can help boost their loved one’s self-esteem by
reminding them it’s what’s on the inside
that counts. It’s also important to
acknowledge your loved one’s feelings.
Listen to them, find out what is affecting
them and then work together to find a
solution. This is part of the cancer battle
and should not be taken lightly.”
The good news, according to Mumby, is there are many resources to
help people regain self-esteem.
For instance, 20 years ago if a woman had a mastectomy there were
very limited choices in breast prosthetics.
Now, a woman can find an almost perfect
match to her own size and skin tone.
There are options for hair thinning and loss. Make-up tips to help
with changing skin tones and textures, and
the use of jewelry and accessories to make a
woman feel confident about her looks again.
“For good or for bad we live in an image-conscious society.
Our body image is a part of our identity and when that is altered
it impacts our quality of life,” said Mumby.
“We often think of body image as only
affecting women, but men face these
struggles as well.”
In addition to weight gain or loss, many cancer patients lose
muscle mass, there are changes in hormones
and sexual function can be affected.
“For a man this can raise challenging psychological implications.
He may feel less masculine, less vital, less
capable and weaker.
"He may feel he is not able to provide and protect his family; that
he is letting people down. Having these
kinds of changes can make anyone feel out of
control, and no one likes that feeling.”
Places like Loyola’s Coleman Foundation Image Renewal Center, a
spa-like retreat where cancer patients can
come for resources and respite, are helping
men and women take back control.
“When facing cancer it can be overwhelming and some of the side
effects of treatment can be lost in the
enormity of information and emotional
exhaustion,” said Debbie Morelli, clinical
cosmetologist at the Coleman Foundation
Image Renewal Center.
How a person’s body is impacted by cancer and treatments may vary
depending on the individual and the type of
cancer. Other common changes include skin
tone changes which can include dark patches,
acne break-outs on the body, face or scalp,
mouth sores, drying and cracking skin on the
hands and feet, and fingernail and toenail
“Cancer treatments can make nails brittle and skin extremely
delicate and sensitive. It’s often too
painful for patients to clip their own nails
and a loved one doesn’t want to feel they
are causing pain. It may sound funny, but we
are specially trained in how to do this so
we don’t tear skin and limit the pain. It
sounds simple, but it makes a big difference
for patients and loved ones.”
Morelli also works with the American Cancer Society and other
cancer support networks to offer Loyola
patients resources to boost self-esteem and
find a sense of self while battling cancer.
“A lot of people just enjoy being here because they feel
comfortable. We are not dwelling on the
medical part of their experience and yet we
all have an understanding of what they’re
going through. Here, we are our focused on
making them feel better about themselves and
that’s an important part of healing too,”
Mumby also encourages cancer patients to look into exercise
options, talk to a nutrition expert and
don’t be ashamed to reach out for
“Sometimes people need to revise their self image. Change is not
bad, it’s just different and it takes time
to adjust. What’s important is to find the
positives, focus on a person’s strengths and
discover what’s most important,” said Mumby.
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Based in the western suburbs of Chicago, Loyola University Health
System is a quaternary care system with a
61-acre main medical center campus, the
36-acre Gottlieb Memorial Hospital campus
and 22 primary and specialty care facilities
in Cook, Will and DuPage counties.
The medical center campus is conveniently located in Maywood, 13
miles west of the Chicago Loop and 8 miles
east of Oak Brook, Ill. The heart of the
medical center campus, Loyola University
Hospital, is a 570-licensed bed facility. It
houses a Level 1 Trauma Center, a Burn
Center and the Ronald McDonald® Children’s
Hospital of Loyola University Medical
Center. Also on campus are the Cardinal
Bernardin Cancer Center, Loyola Outpatient
Center, Center for Heart & Vascular Medicine
and Loyola Oral Health Center as well as the
LUC Stritch School of Medicine, the LUC
Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing and the
Loyola Center for Health & Fitness. Loyola's
Gottlieb campus in Melrose Park includes the
250-bed community hospital, the Gottlieb
Health & Fitness Center and the Marjorie G.
Weinberg Cancer Care Center.