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Hester Hil​l Schnipper Photo courtesy of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center​

​IT’S​ NO SECRET THAT CANCER CHANGES US,​​​​ but t​reatment may also change our physical appearance. These alterations can be painful to accept, whether we’re dealing with temporary reminders such as hair loss from chemotherapy, or more lasting signs, such as expanding waistlines or surgical scars.

Surviving after cancer means finding ways to accept the unacceptable. We are free to dislike any or all cancer-related physical changes, but w​e should also recognize that these physical differences are separate from who we are. It takes practice to learn how to be gentle with ourselves, but here are some tips to hasten the process:

1) Think clearly about what is likely to improve. It may take three years to grow your hair to the hoped-for length, but it will grow back. In the meantime, find ways to enjoy new hairstyles along the way.

2) Accept your new reality. Some parts of your appearance may be changed forever. A breast can be reconstructed, but it will never be the same breast you once had. Your weight and body shape may never return to your precancer normal. It is better to accept an additional 10 pounds than to beat yourself up for not meeting a number on a scale.

3) Seek out experts to address concerns that affect your sense of self. Whether adjusting to the scars of surgery or less visible results of treatment, including changes to libido, seek out specialists to help you manage and adjust. If you don’t know where to go, an oncology social worker or your primary care doctor may be able to point you in the right direction.

4) Remember that strangers are not likely to see your perceived flaws. Those closest to you may notice the changes, but they will most likely love you just the same.

5) Try not to compare your present body with your body before treatment. Instead of self-criticism, practice being kin​d to yourself.

6) Make efforts to enhance what you have. Stop by the beauty counter to explore ways to create the illusion of thicker eyebrows, for example. Try out some volume-enhancing mascara to increase eyelash length and thickness. No matter your gender, consider buying a few new outfits or getting a new hairstyle that emphasizes your physical attributes.

7) If you hate your scars, a good tattoo artist may be able to help hide them.

8) You may feel alone in your experiences, but remember, all of us change as we age. You have good reason to be upset, but also justification for treasuring the intangibles: relationships, experiences and life.  

Hester Hill Schnipper, a licensed independent clinical social worker, is a breast cancer survivor and the manager of oncology social work at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. She also writes a blog, Living With Breast Cancer, for the hospital's website.

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