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Cancer Changed Your Appearance - Don't Let People's Reactions Keep You Indoors

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Wendy Baer, MD - Blogs
By Wendy Baer, MDPsychiatric oncologistSeptember 17, 2019
From the WebMD Archives

As anyone who goes through cancer knows, the significant physical changes that come with treatment – whether it be hair loss, dramatic weight changes (down or up), surgical scars, or amputations – can cause people to stop and give you The Look. The Look is not just eye contact, or a quick scan head to toe, but a facial expression that shows surprise at the change in appearance or concern for your health – or, worst of all, pity.  

Why do we need to talk about The Look people with cancer get while they are out in public? Mostly because The Look comes with a psychological toll that can be exhausting, and in some cases, can keep patients from going out in public during treatment. Many people don’t want to share their medical stories with the world, but being bald, losing your eyebrows, having visible scars, amputations or weight changes puts your medical story (in part) on display for the world to see. If you have to be reminded of cancer and the changes in your body with each Look, then seeing people becomes a trigger for cancer worries, and another painful reminder of how much your body and life have changed with cancer treatment.  

So should you stay home to avoid The Looks? Absolutely not! Social isolation is problematic on many levels. Staying home usually means sitting on the couch, which only worsening fatigue during cancer treatment. Passive entertainment with TV or boring video games only dampens your thinking skills which worsens chemo brain. Talking with people, navigating social situations, is actually good exercise for your brain. Finally, because we are wired as social beings, being alone at home often worsens your mood. Here are tips on dealing with The Look while out in public:

  • Be YOU! If you like a cool head, go bald, if you love long hair, wear a wig, if you enjoy colorful scarfs, buy yourself a couple soft ones, and if you are a sports fan, treat yourself to your favorite team’s authentic flat bill. Find what suits you. You can’t change how people look, but you can change some things about your look.
  • Remind yourself the Look is about them, not you. People react to what they see based on their personal histories. Your scar may remind them about their own medical problem; your bald head might trigger memories about an uncle who smoked and raised goats (really, you just never know). Remember the classic advice for back to school anxiety? No need to feel self-conscious since most people are more concerned about their looks than yours.
  • Let your style protect you. Wearing a clever t-shirt (“stupid cancer”, “my surgeon flipped my lid”, “yeah they are fake, my real ones tried to kill me”) or a flashy pair of shoes (beaded driving slippers or cowboy boots) seems to diminish the seriousness of cancer Looks. Carry something that makes you feel strong (a Wonder Woman bag, sturdy walking stick, faith symbol) so if you are reminded of your cancer, you are also reminded of how strong you are to be out in public!
  • Remember that the way you look during cancer treatment will change. Weight goes up and down again, hair grows back (sometimes curlier or whiter), and prosthetics and wheelchairs make getting around in public possible. Your appearance changed because you were battling cancer. Your scars showed how hard you worked and are reminders of your efforts to stay well. 

If going out in public was a major challenge even before cancer, talk to your oncology team about a referral to a mental health specialist to explore whether you may have social anxiety disorder (SAD). For more information on SAD visit adaa.org.

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About the Author
Wendy Baer, MD

Wendy Baer, MD, is the medical director of psychiatric oncology at the Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University in Atlanta. Dr. Baer helps patients and their families deal with the stress of receiving a cancer diagnosis and going through treatment. Her expertise in treating clinical depression and anxiety helps people manage emotions, behaviors and relationships during difficult times.

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