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Improving your body image after your mastectomy

Struggling with body image is an age-old tradition for women. We can be so critical in how we see ourselves. Too fat, too skinny, bad skin, bad hair…every woman has one aspect of their bodies that they do not like or wish they could change. Add getting breast cancer to the mix and all those insecurities get amplified. Our breasts are such an important part of our identity, even if they are the focus of our insecurities. They represent femininity, sexuality, beauty and motherhood. So, it’s no wonder that about half of women with breast cancer struggle with body image after mastectomy1.  

A mastectomy - the life-saving yet cruelly disfiguring surgery many women undergo to stop the growth of cancer in their breasts - can leave you feeling like less of a woman. “I don’t feel nearly as feminine as I felt before,” says Naomi Pickersgill, a breast cancer patient living in Stratford, Ontario who had a mastectomy in 2015. (Read her story here.)

These feelings are hard to avoid and completely understandable. You have a hard time fitting into your old clothes, or buying new clothes – and don’t even mention the word bikini! It can affect your sex life and your confidence. Accepting your new body will take time but it can happen.

Using a breast prosthesis or having reconstruction can often improve self-image. You’re better able to fit into your clothes and it can help you feel more like your old self. But these options aren’t perfect solutions. A prosthetic or reconstructed breast will never live up to the real thing so many women still struggle with their body image. 

Talk it out. Share how you’re feeling with your circle of support. Find someone who will be supportive and understanding of your feelings and insecurities. This might be your partner, a friend, a relative or someone at your support group who’s faced similar struggles. If you’re finding that you’re having difficulty connecting with someone or are starting to experience feelings of depression or anxiety, ask your doctor for a referral to a counsellor.

Face it head on. Research suggests that if you look at your scars soon after your surgery, you may cope better and be more accepting of your body2. But looking at your scar for the first time can be emotional and every woman is different. Don’t feel pressured and choose a time when you are ready.

Fake it till you make it. Even if you don’t feel confident about how you look try to have a positive outlook. When you’re getting ready for the day, tell yourself you look good, even if you don’t believe it. Replace a critical thought with a positive affirmation: “I look great today!” It sounds trivial but experts say that it can help.

Take your time. It won’t happen overnight but give yourself the time and space to accept your new body. Your scars will begin to fade and become less visible. And gradually regaining your regular schedule of work, leisure and exercise will help to make you feel more like yourself.

As a society, we are becoming more open to discussing our body image and challenging the perception of an ideal body.  Reminding yourself that you are not the only person feeling this way can help you feel a little less alone.