Body Image Matters

Sherry Hansen and her daughter shopping
Sherry Hansen (above right) was not prepared for the changes in her body's appearance.

Why it's important to prepare and understand how treatment can change your body

Sherry Hansen was a single mom of a 3-year-old when she was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer in 2000 at an outside hospital.

"They came in, said I had cancer and was going to have a mastectomy," Hansen says. "Then everyone left and I was sitting there crying, wondering who was going to take care of my daughter."

"We all try to anticipate potential problems. It's not just cosmetic, it goes to functioning, socialization and how one feels about oneself."
-- Michelle Riba, M.D.

No one prepared Hansen for the changes in her body's appearance. She scheduled surgery as soon as possible and had her breast removed without reconstruction. A doctor told her that even with the mastectomy, her cancer would likely return within a few years.

"They came in, took my bandages off and left," she says. "I went in the bathroom and looked at myself for the first time. I saw a huge scar across my chest where my breast used to be. I was horrified."

Sherry Hanson and her daughter
Learn more about how the Cancer Center’s PsychOncology Program can help you overcome the negative social and psychological effects of cancer.

Some of the side effects that can lead to body image concerns:
  • Hair loss
  • Scars from surgery
  • Fatigue
  • Skin changes, including rashes and burns
  • Swelling of the face, arms or legs
  • Decreased physical skills, including athletic capabilities, balance and agility
  • Loss of a body part
  • Weight loss
  • Weight gain
  • Changes in sexual function, such as infertility, early menopause, loss of sexual interest or erectile difficulties
Source: cancer.net

Body image can play a major role in cancer treatment and should be addressed as early as possible, says Michelle Riba, M.D., director of the PsychOncology Program, a joint program between the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center and the University of Michigan Department of Psychiatry and Depression Center. Riba leads a team of mental health professionals with a thorough understanding of cancer treatments and the emotional aspects surrounding cancer. In Hansen’s case, a better course would have been education and counseling before surgery so she would have known what to expect when the bandages came off.

"Depending on the cancer, the procedure and the person, many factors are involved," Riba says. "Breasts are an example of a body part with meaning. Some people have an understandably difficult time looking at scars. Sometimes, depending on the surgery and the type of cancer and side effects, patients lose bone or body function. Spouses or children can have a hard time adjusting to changes in the way a patient looks. There is a continuum and range of issues."

Hansen turned to the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center for the remainder of treatment, including radiation and chemotherapy. Her medication caused weight gain and, as a side effect of her mastectomy, she noticed limited mobility and swelling in her arm related to lymphedema, making it difficult to perform her regular responsibilities as a neonatal intensive care nurse. Though her cancer was gone, depression set in.

"My oncologist, Dr. Schott, noticed how distressed I was about my body and the fear of my cancer coming back," she says. "She referred me to Dr. Riba for help. U-M made me feel like everything was going to be OK. They were not going to abandon me. To this day, they haven't."

Fourteen years later, Hansen is in the final stages of reconstructive surgery and lymph node transplantation to reduce the swelling in her arm. She is already excited about the results and is now thinking about returning to work and reclaiming the joy she feels when caring for babies. And, she’s having a great time buying clothes for her new body.

"Now I go shopping for enjoyment. My daughter and I have shopping days. Since I've lost some weight, I love to shop at any place a little high end. I can actually fit into stuff now. I can even buy shirts with cleavage."

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Thrive Issue: 
Spring, 2014