Coping With Changes to Your Body After Breast Cancer

Maureen Robb's picture
By Maureen Robb on October 18, 2018

Women with breast cancer are often distressed by changes to their body after treatment.

These can include scars from surgery, hair loss due to chemotherapy, swelling in the arm and weight gain.

If you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer, how can you prepare for the possibilities?

And psychologically, how can you best cope with them?


“Most breast cancer patients face surgery and sometimes radiation,” said Jessica Partin, M.D., a breast surgeon with Carilion Clinic.

Surgeons remove breast cancer and the surrounding breast tissue either by a lumpectomy or a mastectomy. 

A lumpectomy is a more limited surgery and usually causes less pain and smaller scars. The goal is to remove the cancer and still maintain the normal shape of the breast.

The surgeon also usually tries to place the incisions in areas that can be hidden with undergarments. 

Lumpectomy is typically followed by radiation therapy to the breast. “Radiation causes changes both during and after treatment,” said Dr. Partin.

Potential changes during treatment are:

  • Redness resembling a sunburn
  • Fullness and/or soreness
  • Itching
  • Fatigue (toward end of treatment)

 Potential changes after treatment are:

  • A mild tanned appearance of the breast skin
  • Dimpling
  • Breast tissue may feel thickened
  • The treated breast may be smaller

The radiation oncologist will likely discuss how to keep your skin well moisturized during treatment to help minimize some of these side effects. 

A mastectomy, on the other hand, removes the entire breast, and a woman may or may not choose to undergo breast reconstruction. Although it won’t feel like a woman’s natural breast, reconstruction involves rebuilding the breast mound to create the appearance of the breast.
Studies suggest that women who choose reconstruction find it helps with their body image. 

Women also may choose to use a breast prosthesis worn inside the bra to give the appearance of their breast.

“If there are significant differences in the sizes of the breasts after cancer treatment, a patient may be a candidate for surgery on the opposite breast (such as a reduction) to improve symmetry,” Dr. Partin said.

What options can you explore with your doctor?

They include:

  •   Are you a good candidate for reconstruction?
  •   Would the surgeon use implants or your own tissue? Or both?
  •   If your own tissue is used, would you like it to come from your abdomen (a common option)? This usually leaves a scar low on the abdomen that can be covered by underwear or a bathing suit.
  •   How many surgeries would you need?
  •   When should you have the surgery? Some women have it months or years after their cancer treatment.
  •   How would surgery alter the shape and size of your breasts? The feel of them?
  •   Would you be better off wearing a prosthesis inside your bra to simulate a breast, or the part of the breast that was removed?

Hair Loss

“Some women have types of breast cancer that require treatment with chemotherapy, and some of the medicines used will cause hair loss,” noted Dr. Partin.

“This is very often temporary, and hair begins to regrow again a few months after chemotherapy,” she said. “Facing hair loss, though, can be distressing.”

Many women have found these steps can help:

  • Getting a cute, short haircut before chemotherapy to ease the transition
  • Shopping for hats or head scarves before chemotherapy to feel better prepared
  • Shaving the head to expedite the hair loss process
  • Wearing a head covering all or part of the time
  • Wearing a wig

Some salons will also shave heads for breast cancer patients at no charge, and organizations such as the American Cancer Society offer free wig programs. 

Prepare for Changes

Having concerns about how your body might change is normal, and dealing with your concerns can help lessen your overall anxiety about treatment.

Do give yourself credit for the steps you’re taking to deal with breast cancer, and find new ways to appreciate your body.

And remember, be kind to yourself.

Coping with any change to your body will take time and patience.
This is part 1 of a two-part story on coping with changes to your body after breast cancer.  Part 2 discusses how to cope with potential side effects such as swelling of the arm and weight change.

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