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Changes to how you look

Cancer and its treatment can sometimes change the way you look. These changes might be visible to other people or they might be changes only you can see.

Changes to how you look can affect you in different ways. They can affect:

  • how you feel about yourself
  • your sexuality and relationships
  • your career

It can be upsetting at first. Some people find that they have intense feelings including grief, fear and anger. Changes to how you look can also affect your self confidence and body image. But there are lots of things you can do to help you cope with them.  

What changes might happen

The changes you might have depend on the type of cancer you have and the treatment you need. Some changes are temporary but some can be permanent. 

Weight changes

You might lose or put on weight. 

Weight loss is very common with some types of cancer including stomach and oesophageal cancer. You might lose weight because you have:

  • loss of appetite
  • taste changes
  • mouth problems
  • constipation or diarrhoea
  • difficulty swallowing

Weight loss can also be a sign of advanced cancer.

Some people with cancer put on weight. There may be a number of reasons for this. Some types of treatment, for example, steroid treatment can cause weight gain.

And some cancer treatments can lower the amount of sex hormones in the body. A low level of sex hormones can sometimes cause weight gain.

Hair changes

Hair loss and hair thinning is a common side effect for some cancer treatments including:

  • chemotherapy
  • targeted cancer drugs
  • immunotherapy
  • hormone therapy
  • radiotherapy

For most people the hair grows back, or starts to thicken, either with time or when you finish treatment.

Some cancer drug treatments can cause excess hair growth on your face and eyelashes. Talk to the team caring for you about how to manage this.

Skin and nail changes

Some cancer treatments can cause skin and nail changes such as:

  • itching
  • sweating
  • dry skin
  • nail ridges or splitting
  • infection

Skin rashes can be a side effect of some targeted cancer drugs, immunotherapies and hormone therapy. These changes can be severe.

Contact your doctor straight away if you have a skin rash, peeling, blisters, bleeding, swelling or if your skin becomes sore.

Scarring and changes to different parts of your body

Surgery can change the way you look. Even small changes can have a big effect on how you see and feel about yourself.

Remember, not all operations leave big scars. Your surgeon will try to minimise how big any scar is and how visible it is. Scars often fade and become difficult to see with time.

Surgery to your head and neck area might mean your surgeon needs to remove some bone, muscle and tissue. They can rebuild the area using bone and skin from other parts of your body.

A team of skilled specialists will look after you. This usually includes a plastic surgeon as well as your cancer surgeon. They will try to keep the shape of the face and reduce scarring as much as possible.

Loss of a body part

Losing a part of your body is distressing. There are different reasons why you might need this type of surgery. For example, you might need surgery to remove your breast (mastectomy) because of breast cancer.

People react differently to losing a part of their body. You might have feelings of anger and shock. And it can affect self confidence. 

It can take time to adjust to any change. The first few months after surgery can be difficult but gradually you'll become more used to how you look. You might be able to use a false body part (a prosthesis) or an implant to disguise it.

Swelling

You can have swelling because of the cancer or its treatment. For example cancer and some treatments can affect the lymphatic system. This can cause a build up of lymph fluid so a part of your body becomes swollen (lymphoedema).

The most common areas of lymphoedema include arms or legs, but it can happen in other parts of the body.

The changes you have depend on where you have the swelling. But even if other people can’t see it, the swelling can affect how you feel about yourself.

An opening (stoma) in your neck or tummy

Treatment for some head and neck cancers can include needing an opening in your neck (a breathing stoma) to help you breathe.

Surgery for cancers affecting the bowel might mean you need to have an opening (a stoma) on your tummy (abdomen). This might be a colostomy or ileostomy depending on the part of the bowel the cancer is affecting. This means that your bowel empties into a bag which sticks onto the skin of your abdomen.

Cancers affecting the bladder might mean you need an opening onto your abdomen to allow you to pass urine. This is called a urostomy.

Many stomas are temporary but some can be permanent. Breathing stomas can also affect the way you speak and swallow.

Getting used to the stoma will take some time. It is common to feel self conscious at first but you will adjust. You’ll have a specialist nurse to help you get used to your stoma and show you how to look after it.

Coping

It can be hard to adjust to changes to how you look. But there are lots of things you can do to help you cope.

Last reviewed: 
11 Jul 2019
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    National Cancer Survivorship Initiative (NCSI), March 2013

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    Jane Bryce and CB Boers
    Seminars in Oncology Nursing, Aug 2014

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    VT DeVita, TS Lawrence, SA Rosenberg
    Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, 2015

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    K Jones
    Omnigraphics Incorporated, 2017

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    The independent Cancer Taskforce, July 2015

  • The information on this page is based on literature searches and specialist checking. We used many references and there are too many to list here. Please contact patientinformation@cancer.org.uk with details of the particular issue you are interested in if you need additional references for this information.

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