Conversations about body image and self-esteem can be difficult to have with teenagers, even more so if their bodies have undergone a significant change.

This is an important time for a teen’s personal growth and development; being truthful about body changes and letting teens participate in conversations about physical changes during their treatment can help them prepare for what may come.

Encouraging and supporting them to express themselves in a healthy way can also lead to better coping and communication skills in the future.

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Why it’s important

Adolescence is the time when teens begin to form their own identities based on both how they perceive themselves and how they are perceived by others.

In an era where social media is the driving force of communication for adolescents and young adults, there is often pressure to look a certain way in order to fit in or be liked.

Having a cancer diagnosis as an adolescent adds a complicated layer to the formation of identity. It is common for teens to engage in social comparisons, comparing themselves to peers, friends, and figures of pop culture. 

These comparisons can make teenagers feel uncomfortable about how they look and may be strong enough to make them want to avoid their friends, school, public places, or having their picture taken.

Body image breakdown

When an adolescent is treated for cancer their body can react in a variety of ways: surgery can cause permanent scarring, chemotherapy can cause hair loss and weight loss, and steroids can cause weight gain.

Adolescents appreciate complete and honest information about side effects and what is going to be happening to their bodies. Because self-esteem, independence, socialization, sexuality, and body image are an important part of how they are forming their personal identity, it is important to keep this in mind when giving them information about their diagnosis and treatment plan.1

How to support a parent or guardian

In supporting a parent or guardian, it is important to make them aware of the possible changes that may occur in their child’s body. Have them prepare a list of questions to ask the doctor and suggest that the patient be a part of the question-asking process.

It is important for teens to understand their treatment or surgery. Although talking about possible treatment side effects can be a challenging conversation to have, it is important to emphasize information-sharing when speaking to parents.

Encourage parents and guardians to keep an open line of communication and try to explain why the treatment or surgery is needed in the first place. Let them know that being honest about what may happen might help their child to understand that the body changes are not permanent (hair loss, weight loss, weight gain, etc.).

In the case of surgery, it is important to have a discussion about possible scarring that may occur with the teen’s medical team prior to surgery. This way, preparation can be made in case there are permanent changes to their teen’s body.