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Body Image

Body image is the aspect of self-concept that focuses on our ideas about our physical appearance, how we compare ourselves to others, and how our bodies function or work

The diagnosis of cancer can be very overwhelming. Do you remember what thoughts were going through your head when you were first diagnosed? Maybe you were angry, hurt, sad, or scared. Since the treatment for head and neck cancer often results in permanent changes in a person's appearance and body function, the challenge each person faces in adapting to these changes can be significant. In this section we will discuss methods to help you learn to adapt to these changes.

Self-concept is a collection of ideas, feelings, and beliefs about ourselves that determines how we relate to and communicate with others

It is influenced by:

  • How we see ourselves physically (how we look or think we look)
  • Emotionally (how we feel about ourselves)
  • Socially (how we think others feel about us)

Body image is the aspect of self-concept that focuses on our ideas about our physical appearance, how we compare ourselves to others, and how our bodies function or work

Any physical change in how we look or how our body works forces us to change how we think about our body image and adjust to these changes. Changes in body image can affect our self-esteem or how we feel about ourselves.

Quite often, the treatment for head and neck cancer involves major surgery that can result in some degree of facial disfigurement. Depending on the extent of surgery, scarring can range from very little to very severe. Head and neck cancer treatment presents a challenge to each person because the treatment can change both how you "look" and also how your body "works".

It may be more difficult for you to drink, eat, or swallow. In addition, you may also find it more difficult to express yourself emotionally through facial expressions. Even if these changes are not severe, they still may affect how you view yourself and/or how you interact with others.

After your surgery, your body begins to heal and you begin to cope with these changes. Frustration about how others will react when you communicate can lead to anxiety, sadness, and feelings of loneliness and isolation. These emotions are very common and expected.

Having emotional and social support is very important. It is important that you share your feelings with your family, friends, and health care team. Adjusting to or coping with the changes you experience with head and neck cancer treatment is a difficult process, but people can and do adjust. Being able to identify what you are feeling and sharing these feelings with others is the first step in this adjustment.

People can develop distorted self-images if they do not fully deal with the reality of the change in their body image. Avoidance will interfere with how you adjust to all the challenges of your diagnosis and treatment. It is important that you get accustomed to looking at yourself in the mirror and taking care of yourself immediately after surgery. Learning to care for yourself is an accomplishment that will help you feel more confident about how you can cope with the future.

Learning how to interact and communicate with others after surgery is another important aspect of adjusting to a change in body image. Meeting with people experiencing similar challenges during your time in the hospital may be helpful. Attending support groups with family members, both during and after hospitalization, can assist you in developing new social skills.

When you do not allow yourself to consciously cope with your situation, you often begin to rely on avoidance behaviors and negative coping strategies such as:

  • Blaming yourself or someone else
  • Ignoring the situation
  • Pushing people away
  • Apathy or not caring
  • Doing something impulsive, reckless or impractical
  • Over-indulging in drugs, drinking, or other risky behaviors

When you face the situation and consciously deal with it you are utilizing active behaviors and thoughts. These positive coping strategies include:

  • Requesting information
  • Sharing concerns with others
  • Trying to understand the problem
  • Defining your reaction
  • Accepting the situation; adjusting your reaction
  • Seeking direction or advice

Adjusting to the diagnosis and treatment of the cancer, as well as the possible disfigurement of your head and neck, takes time. You have to keep working at it.

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