Negative body image a barrier to recovery after breast cancer

A Canadian study has found that breast cancer survivors who feel ashamed of their “new normal” body are less likely to get enough exercise – a major risk factor in breast cancer returning, or developing in the first place.

141 Caucasian women, who had completed primary treatment for stages I-III breast cancer, took part in the study, filling out a questionnaire which measured guilt, shame, motivation and level of physical activity. Exercise level was measured again, six months later.

The results showed that women who felt body-related shame were less likely to exercise, whereas those who felt guilt were more likely to achieve a healthy level of physical activity.

The reason?

According to the researchers, when a person feels guilt, it tends to motivate them to correct the wrong, whereas if you feel ashamed, you’re more likely to avoid social situations that remind you of self-perceived failures i.e. the gym.

Change is at the heart of a breast cancer experience and can include hair loss, weight gain, scars, reconstruction, swollen limbs, chronic pain, muscle loss, fatigue and menopausal symptoms like hot flashes. It can be hard to accept these changes and sadly, many women turn the blame inwards, a behaviour known as “self-objectification.”

The researchers pointed to comparison – to the “ideal body” stereotype of Western culture, to same-aged healthy peers or to themselves prior to breast cancer - as the toxic ingredient and urged oncology care teams to offer support programmes to patients to help them develop a more positive relationship with their post-cancer body.

These findings aren’t rocket science – body image issues are growing more prevalent every day, and clearly they don’t discriminate on age, sex or anything else. Everyone is at risk, and those of us who have gone through periods of world-rocking change, are especially so.

You are a breast cancer survivor. You’ve been through hell and back and now, here you are. You might look a little different and you might be scared or angry or overwhelmed, but you made it and that’s something to be proud of, no matter what form your battle scars have taken.