Changing Looks Can Cause Cancer Patients Anxiety

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Diane Mapes, a Seattle writer who also happens to be my friend and former colleague, has a nice essay up at TODAY.com about her hair loss following treatment for breast cancer. To me, one of the most striking lines is near the beginning:

Passing” as my normal, healthy self was crucial for me; I didn’t want to deal with complicated headscarves, pink hats or pitying looks from strangers at the supermarket.

That idea — that cancer patients chafe at the idea of being immediately identifiable as a cancer patient — is something health psychologists are beginning to explore. Research has already shown that the changes in appearance after cancer treatment can lead to real psychological distress. And one study, published last year, found that about 80 percent of cancer patients — male or female — currently undergoing treatment were concerned over the way chemotherapy was changing their looks.

But how can health-care providers quell these sorts of fears? There aren’t a lot of answers yet, but at least health-care experts are starting to take the question seriously. For example, a team of British researchers published a qualitative study back in 2008, in which they interviewed 19 breast cancer patients at a cancer treatment center in the U.K. Their voices echo Mapes’s point about “passing,” as many of them were reluctant to let their altered appearance mark them as a person with cancer:

It’s going to be so obvious that it is cancer. Everyone’s immediately gonna know … this is gonna be sort of like two neon fingers pointing right at me.”

“I knew that I could have reconstructive surgery for my breast and that I’ve got prostheics for now. Nobody else can tell, but when they look at you and you’ve got no hair they know instantly something’s wrong.”

“If you’ve got a scarf on your head, all over your head and you can’t see your hair, you might as well have a placard saying, ‘I’ve got cancer,’ because I’ve been there, I’ve seen people and I’ve thought, ‘Oh, she’s got cancer.’”

“I’m the same person. … When I’m out and about, I’m obviously fine, so … talk about something else.”

For her part, Mapes argues that dealing with her new appearance throughout treatment was ultimately beneficial. “I’ve become a lot less fussy about life’s little disappointments — and my body’s minor imperfections — since the cancer diagnosis,” she writes. “Like my hair, I guess I’ve grown some, too.”