Your Body and Breast Cancer: Self-Care Tips

Regain your confidence and maintain a sense of self during and after treatment

Photo: woman with cancer doing yoga

Following a breast cancer diagnosis, you might be wondering how treatment will take a toll on your body, and if it will be successful in eliminating your cancer. Naturally, this can often mean that things like self-care and maintaining your self-esteem take a backseat to more pressing matters.

But acknowledging your mental health during this period is important, says Jean Sachs, chief executive officer of Living Beyond Breast Cancer.

Following a diagnosis, “many women worry they’ll have a different body or appearance to adjust to,” she explains. Although Sachs notes that the side effects that stem from treatment vary from woman to woman, some of the more common issues—like weight gain or loss, lymphedema, breast shape or size changes, and hair loss—tend to hurt their self-esteem the most.

The age at which a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer can also play a big role in how they view their body, notes Sachs. For younger women, treatment can be harder on their body image and self-esteem, particularly if they’re on anti-estrogen therapies that can cause weight gain and loss of sexual desire.

“Early menopause becomes a real issue for women diagnosed with breast cancer,” she says. “Unlike women who slowly lose estrogen, as happens when you go into perimenopause, this is very abrupt. Just hot flashes alone can really impact how you feel about yourself.” Women with estrogen-positive breast cancer may be on hormonal treatment for five to 10 years, so treatment compliance also becomes an issue with body image, says Sachs.

Although the changes happening to your body during and after treatment can be jarring, maintaining a sense of self and confidence are critical in staying well, says Sachs. “The whole reason many women fought cancer [with treatments] is so they could live. However, having a negative body image can stop you from living your life.”

Regain your confidence during and following treatment with these self-care tips.

1. Acknowledge Your Anxieties

“A lot of women try to minimize how they feel about their bodies, and that is dangerous,” says Sachs. “Just because the physical changes you experience from your cancer treatment aren’t life-threatening, that doesn’t mean they won’t impact the quality of your life.”

Consider expressing these anxieties, fears, or angers to a close friend that you trust. If you’re not comfortable doing so, write them down in a journal.

2. Connect with Survivors or Others Undergoing Treatment

Whether you meet in person or engage online, breast cancer support groups can provide a sounding board to vent your fears and frustrations. They’re also a great place to get tips from other women experiencing similar discouragement and feelings following treatment. These groups can often be tailored to your age group, location, type or cancer, or treatment. Find a support group here.    

3. Consider Complimentary Therapies

Talk to your doctor about the types of wellness services you might have access to, including acupuncture, yoga, and physical therapy.

“Yoga, in particular, can be extremely useful for those undergoing treatment, not only in terms of getting stronger but in improving self-confidence,” notes Sachs. “I’ve heard a lot of women say, the only time I felt beautiful in treatment was when I was practicing yoga.”

4. Try a New Style

Part of feeling comfortable in your own skin post-treatment, is learning to embrace the new you and reclaim your body, says Sachs. She recommends tattoos and body art to cover mastectomy and infusion port scars.

“They’re making something beautiful from something that could be seen as ugly,” says Sachs. Some women also skip the wig and cover their bald head with henna designs instead.

If permanent body art isn’t your thing, no problem. A new nail color or fresh statement piece can have the same effect. 

5. Make Exercise a Priority

Exercise releases brain chemicals that help you feel better. “A lot of what we talk about is making sure you get exercise every day. Getting out for a walk can make a big difference.” says Sachs.

According to Fitz Koehler, a breast cancer survivor and fitness expert in Gainesville, Florida, with a masters in exercise and sports sciences, individuals undergoing treatment should focus on three major pillars (in addition to regular walking or swimming): strength, flexibility, and balance:

  • Strength. Koehler recommends using light weights, resistance bands, or just your own body weight to perform squats, lunges, or push-ups to build strength. Pilates is also a good choice, says Koehler, because most of the time you’re on the ground, which helps if you don’t feel steady on your feet.
  • Flexibility. Try touching your toes, reaching for the sky, and doing stretches off the edge of your bed or off the side of your couch. Koehler likes to use a foam roller and an exercise ball to stretch her abdominal and hip muscles. To do so, lie down on top of the roller and allow the arching shape to support your back. She also recommends stretching in the shower while listening to uplifting music. “The warm water loosens me up a bit,” she says.
  • Balance. A loss of balance is often overlooked during cancer treatment, but it’s critical to maintain, explains Koehler. “If you fall down and get hurt, everything in your world is going to get that much more challenging.” Try standing on one foot for a period of 10 to 30 seconds—or, for a challenge, try doing it with your eyes closed or while slowly waving your arms around.

6. Talk to Your Cancer Doctor

If your body image is affecting your quality of life, it’s important to let your doctor know. If it’s due to hormonal therapies, your doctor may be able to switch you to a different treatment, says Sachs. Most cancer centers have psycho-oncologists or social workers on staff who can help you work on your self-esteem. These experts can also help you manage any underlying or related depression, which can keep you from feeling better about yourself. “You need to love yourself first and not be afraid to ask for help, so you can figure out what you need to do,” says Sachs.

7. Enroll in a Survivorship Program

By the time you’ve finished treatment and are on track toward recovery from your cancer, survivorship programs at cancer care centers can ensure your confidence remains high in the following years. There are also survivorship programs online. For example, Living Beyond Breast Cancer (LBBC) offers free webcasts on numerous topics, including one on the topic of body image after a breast cancer diagnosis. Check out a list of upcoming events here