Supporting Your Patients Who Have Low Self-Esteem After Cancer Treatment

A cancer diagnosis comes with an array of emotions. On top of what is happening internally to an individual’s body, patients first see what is happening externally—most noticeably their looks.

Bonnie Annis

A cancer diagnosis comes with an array of emotions. On top of what is happening internally to an individual’s body, patients first see what is happening externally—most noticeably their looks.

Oncology nurses can offer them the support and understanding they need to help make the process a little easier to cope with.

In fact, women place a lot of importance on their appearances while undergoing treatment, especially those diagnosed with incurable metastatic breast cancer (MBC), according to a survey conducted as part of the Advanced Breast Cancer Community’s “Make Your Dialogue Count” initiative.

Researchers surveyed 359 women with MBC and discovered 96% experienced some form of appearance-related side effect, the most common (74%) being hair loss. More than half the women surveyed said their overall physical appearance during treatment greatly impacted their self-esteem, and this was especially prevalent in younger women, aged 21 to 44.

Reporting at the recent ONS Annual Congress, the study’s authors wrote that that group “felt confused by the changes in their body, like less of a woman and like cancer had stolen their dignity.”

Bonnie Annis, a freelance writer and blogger for CURE, can relate to this feeling. As a breast cancer survivor she knows firsthand that cancer can demean and demoralize a person.

“I felt like I was nothing anymore. I had no breasts, my femininity was gone. I was feeling terrible from being in treatment, so I didn’t feel like being out in public,” said Annis.

Similar feelings are common among all those undergoing treatment for cancer, including men and children, which is why organizations like the Cancer Survivor Beauty and Support Day Foundation and Look Good Feel Better have been created. Cancer Survivor Beauty and Support Day (CSBSD), is an annual, nationwide event created by Barbara Natof Paget in 2003, whereby beauty-related industries volunteer to provide services such as hairstyling, massages, and manicures.

A group that focuses on helping patients currently in cancer treatment is Look Good Feel Better. It aims to improve quality of life for patients with cancer by offering complimentary group, individual, and self-help beauty sessions.

This group was something Annis avoided for 2 years because she was afraid. After overcoming her fears, she recently attended a workshop. It was here where professional cosmetologists taught the women how to apply makeup, as well as different styles for head scarves and proper care for wigs. The ladies also got their own makeup bags with beauty products donated by cosmetic companies.

“I looked around the room, and there were tears in almost every single person’s eyes,” said Annis. “It was a transformation. We all had felt like we were ugly caterpillars and now we were beautiful butterflies. When we walked in we were not standing erect and proud. When we walked out, we had a confidence and a boldness.”

Annis revealed that she found solace in attending the Look Good Feel Better workshop. It helped her regain the confidence she was lacking before. Now, she starts each day by doing her makeup, before she even eats breakfast.

“It’s like I’m putting on my game face,” explained Annis. “I am ready for battle. It makes me feel so much better to do that first thing in the morning.”

Workshops and events that these two groups provide prove to be effective for patients dealing with the effects of cancer—a subject that can begin with discussions with healthcare providers.

The study’s authors concluded that supportive, sensitive, and understanding nurses, who encourage communication between themselves and the patient, aids them in their cancer journey. Discussions of the side effects of treatment should occur with every visit and include spouses or other loved ones who provide support.

Annis personally recommends Look Good Feel Better classes and similar programs to anyone struggling with cancer, and that clinicians should recommend them, too.

“You went through this traumatic experience, and it was terrible, and you felt like nothing for all this time, but you’re still okay and you’re still vital and you are significant,” Annis said.

Tamis-Bieder L, Brufsky A, Dickson RB, et al. Impact of metastatic breast cancer and treatment side effects on physical appearance: implications for oncology nurses. Oncol Nurs Forum. 2016;43(2):81.