How to Cope With Changes During Cancer Treatment

Develop a new self-image by adapting to changes

Based on content from the NIH publication, “Taking Time: Dealing With New Self-Image.”

When you have cancer and when you are having treatment for cancer, changes occur.

  •     You don't have as much energy as you did before the cancer.
  •     Your body isn't the same as it was.
  •     If you're single, your dating life may be awkward. You may face new challenges in your sex life.
  •     If you have a partner, you may face changes in your relationship.

These changes can be hard to accept. But most people with cancer find that, with time, they're able to develop a new self-image by:

  •     staying actively involved in life
  •     getting help when they need it
  •     talking openly about sex and intimacy with their loved ones

Cancer and its treatment can change how you look and feel.

  •     Surgery can leave scars or change the way you look.
  •     Chemotherapy can cause your hair to fall out.
  •     Radiation can make you feel very tired.
  •     Some drugs may cause you to gain weight or feel bloated.
  •     Treatments can make it hard to eat. They may upset your stomach and make you throw up. Or they can make you feel so sick that you do not want to eat.
  •     Some treatments can make it hard to get pregnant or father a child.

Cancer treatment can last for weeks or months. The good news is that most of these side effects go away when the treatment is over.

Many people want to know as much as they can about side effects, even before treatment begins. This way, they can talk with their doctor about ways to treat them. For example, a doctor can change a person's drugs or suggest new foods to eat.

Cancer treatment may affect your ability to have children in the future. If this is a concern, talk to your doctor. He or she may be able to refer you to a fertility doctor before you begin treatment for your cancer.


Many people feel fatigue (they are very tired or have little energy) when they are being treated for cancer. They may have good days with lots of energy and bad days when they're very tired. This fatigue is likely to last for a while after treatment is over. For some people, it can last for many months.

Ask your doctor about exercise. Studies show that when people are tired, exercise helps. Even light walking may be good for you.

Let people know that you have both good and bad days. Try to do something special on days when you feel better. Let yourself rest on the days you are very tired. And don't be afraid to tell others if you feel fatigue, even if you need to change your plans.

Your self-image

Each of us has a mental picture of how we look, our "self-image." Although we may not always like how we look, we are used to and accept our self-image.

Cancer and its treatment can change your self-image. You may have changes such as hair loss or scars from surgery. Some of these changes (hair loss) will go away when treatment is over. Other changes (scars) will always be a part of how you look. Every person changes in different ways. Some changes people will notice and other changes only you will notice. Some changes you may like and with some others, you may need time to adjust.

Coping with these changes can be hard. But, over time, most people learn to accept them. Your family and friends can help by showing they love you the way you are.

Staying Active

Many people find that staying active can help. Whether you swim, play a sport, or take an exercise class, you may find that being active helps you accept your new self-image. Talk with your doctor about ways you can stay active.

Hobbies and volunteer work can also help improve your self-image. You may like to read, listen to music, or sew. You may also want to teach someone how to read or volunteer at a homeless shelter. You may find that you feel better about yourself when you get involved in helping others and doing things you enjoy.

Getting Help

Reconstructive surgery. If cancer surgery changes the way you look, you may want to have reconstructive surgery (plastic surgery). Many patients feel that this type of surgery helps them cope better with their new self-image. For instance, you may choose to have surgery to improve the look of a surgical scar. Most insurance companies pay for reconstructive surgery.

Prosthetic devices. If a part of your body needs to be amputated (cut off) because of cancer, a prosthetic device (a fake or man-made body part) can replace what was cut off. For example, if your leg is amputated, you may want to have a prosthetic leg to replace the one you lost. Most insurance companies pay for prosthetic devices.

Wigs and scarves. Cancer treatment may cause you to lose your hair. You may want to cover your head to keep you warm and protected from the sun. You may also feel that wearing a wig or scarf improves how you look.

It is a good idea to buy your wig before treatment starts. This way, the wig will match the color and style of your own hair. You may want to start wearing your wig before losing your hair. Try to find a wig or scarf that fits well and is not scratchy, since your scalp may be tender and sore. You may be able to deduct the cost of your wig from your income taxes. Most of the time, your hair will grow back when treatment is over, even though it may be a different color and not feel like it did before.

Facing cancer with your spouse or partner

Some couples grow stronger when they face cancer together. They look at their lives in a new way. Problems that once seemed big don't feel that way now. Other couples facing cancer have more trouble.

Your sex life may change

Sometimes people with cancer and their partners or spouses have trouble showing their love for each other. For instance, one man said that his wife wouldn't kiss him any more because she was afraid that she would catch cancer. In truth, people cannot give each other cancer. If your loved one is worried about catching cancer from you, suggest he or she talk with your doctor.

People can also have problems with sex because of cancer and its treatment. For instance, you may not like how you look and not want to have sex. If this happens, talk with your spouse or partner. Your partner probably loves you for more than your body.

Your spouse or partner may be afraid to have sex with you. He or she may be afraid of hurting you or having sex when you are not feeling well. Let your partner know if you want to have sex or would rather just hug, kiss, and cuddle. You can still have intimacy without having sex.

Sometimes, cancer and its treatment causes other problems with sex.

  •     Fatigue can make you so tired that you don't want to have sex.
  •     Surgery can make certain positions painful.
  •     Prostate cancer treatments can make it hard for a man to have an erection.
  •     Some treatments cause women to have vaginal dryness.
  •     Orgasm is sometimes hard to achieve.

Even though you may feel awkward, talk about your sex life with people who can help. Let your doctor or nurse know if you are having problems. There may be drugs you can take or other ways you and your loved one can give each other pleasure. Some people also find it helpful to talk with other couples about how to stay close while dealing with cancer.

Remember that you are special for who you are, not how you look. Your sense of humor, intellect, sweetness, common sense, special talents, and loyalty, these and many other qualities make you special. Sex is not the only basis for a relationship. It is one of many ways to express love and respect.


If you're single, you may worry about dating. You may be afraid that you don't look like you used to. And you may not know how, or when, to talk with someone new about your cancer.

Summing up: Dealing with a new self-image

When you have cancer and when you are having treatment for cancer, you go through changes.

  •     You don't have as much energy as you did before the cancer.
  •     Your body is not the same as it was.
  •     If you're single, your dating life may be awkward.
  •     You may face new problems in your sex life.

These changes can be hard to accept. But most people with cancer find that, with time, they learn to accept their new self-image by:

  •     staying involved in life
  •     getting help when they need it
  •     talking openly about sex and feelings of closeness with their loved ones

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