Body image is a complex construct of self-attitude in relation to a person’s own body, shape, appearance, and size (Walters-Brown & Hall, 2012). Thus, body image affects how one sees and values his or her self. This paper will discuss my family’s experience as to how a chronic illness such as cancer disrupts a person, such as my grandmother’s body image, both physically and psychosocially. Additionally, affecting her psychological state and self-perception as an area of function continuously decline (Rhoten, 2016).
To begin, body image extends beyond how a person views his or her appearance physically, it also involves one’s feelings, thoughts, perceptions, and behaviours that relate to the body and how it functions (Gingeret, Teo & Epner, 2014). Body image develops throughout life and when it gets affected by an outside force such as an illness, a person undergoes major changes in appearance and functioning. These major changes vary on how a person reacts to the diagnosis and treatments (Rhoten, 2016). In my family, we have experienced various cancer diagnoses and every one goes through the process differently and the one who has experienced it worst is my grandmother when she discovered she has breast cancer. In literature, body image fixates on women because of gender differences as society puts women’s physical appearance on a higher degree compared to men’s physical appearance (Walters-Brown & Hall, 2012). As a politician’s wife and a woman, my grandmother always projects a perfect image into the society through every party and place she goes to as she takes perfect care of her self. Throughout her life, my great grandparents have always supported her in everything she ever wanted to be and to do, she only experienced a positive body image as a child and a teenager (Walters-Brown & Hall, 2012). As a result, her body image continues to improve and build as she gets older and when she discovers she has breast cancer, it starts to decline. As she goes through chemotherapy, physical and psychosocial changes start to disrupt how she sees and values her self. For instance, my grandmother begins to see changes in her weight, body, and face as she was losing a lot of weight, starts to have sunken eyes due to fatigue and difficulty sleeping and starts to lose hair as a side effect of the treatments. But, most importantly, she undergoes through a mastectomy and lost one of her breasts. In addition to her physical changes, she starts to experience changes psychosocially, which involves social factors and an individual’s behaviours and thoughts (Walters-Brown & Hall, 2012). To start, my grandmother continues to stay in the hospital as she can no longer do anything without help, she gets weaker every day and that causes a huge shift in her personality. My grandmother starts to become irritated, agitated and angry even at the smallest things. Furthermore, she refuses to look at her self in the mirror and see visitors, she starts to distance her self from all of us. As evidence, Rhoten’s paper discusses that disturbance in body image is characterized by a person’s dissatisfaction with how he or she looks that can result in the decline of how they live their lives and causes them to isolate themselves from the world (2016).
For body image disturbance in cancer patients to occur, there are three attributes that patients must possess which are changes in self-perception, a decline in an area of function and psychological distress (Rhoten, 2016). To begin, the first attribute is self-perception of a change in appearance and displeasure with their change in appearance (Rhoten, 2016). For example, my grandmother experiences a severe level of disfigurement in her body because she undergoes a surgical mastectomy that causes her to lose one of her breasts, who made her feel less beautiful, aside from her chemotherapy treatments and its side effects. My grandmother has a distorted self-perception as she views her self less than who she was before her journey with cancer began. Moreover, the second attribute is a decline in an area of function both physically and socially as a consequence of experiencing cancer or being treated for it (Rhoten, 2016). With a continuous decline in her physical health, my grandmother feels that she is left with no choice but stay in her bed all day. As a result, her quality of life continues to decline, she cannot stand up by her self anymore or take a bath in the shower and most especially, she does not have an appetite to eat as she did before. Before learning about her illness, my grandmother used to attend the most extravagant parties with my grandfather and have the best times of their lives whenever she and her friends are together. She is the most social person I know, and everybody loves that about her. However, after treatments and her surgery, she no longer feels that she has the energy to go out and socialize with anyone. Finally, patients who experience psychological distress is the last attribute and the key component of body image disturbance (Rhoten, 2016). For instance, my grandmother becomes dismissive when we talk to her about how she is doing or anything that has to do with her cancer. Throughout her journey with cancer, she has become sadder and angrier at times which is such a huge shift from her happy, energetic and optimistic personality before. My family and I never fail to understand her because it is not impossible for her to change when she is facing a very difficult phase in her life. Moreover, she is in constant pain, but she always chooses to suffer in silence because she does not want us to worry about her. Like any other people suffering from illnesses, my grandmother also has her bad days and when she does, she likes to throw at people whatever she can reach. As evidence, elements of psychological distress include a person’s inability to cope, experiences change in their emotional status, discomfort and how they communicate it and harm which my grandmother’s behavior is exhibiting (Rhoten, 2016). Overall, all of these attributes result in further disrupting her body image.
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Additionally, the main consequence of experiencing a disturbance in body image is social patterns alteration (Rhoten, 2016). As for those people who experience an extreme body image disturbance like my grandmother, people tend to avoid social situations and isolate themselves (Gingeret, Teo & Epner, 2014). Even on my grandmother’s good days, she refuses to have visitors other than us who is her family and she refuses to go out even when she can because she claims that she looks worse than she was the day before, every single time. She continuously pushes us away when we try to help her and says that she can do everything by herself. In addition to the change in social patterns, another consequence is the person’s development of a negative body image that results to a decreased self-worth and self-value (Walters-Brown & Hall, 2012). Women who have a negative body image feel disgusted because they lack self-control with their physical appearance (Walters-Brown & Hall, 2012). For instance, since my grandmother starts to experience side effects from her treatments, she stops looking in the mirrors as stops caring what she looks like. Also, she stops caring about what she wears and stops to watch what she eats, which is everything she is not before. Therefore, my grandmother develops negative body image towards her self.
Finally, as a result of a rapid deterioration in my grandmother’s perception of her self, her health care team starts to intervene, providing some interventions to help my grandmother and family through a very difficult time in our lives. The healthcare team teaches us to never underestimate the severity of my grandmother’s complaints and concerns and provides us with resources that can help us improve her body image (Walters-Brown & Hall, 2012). My grandmother starts to go to a cancer support group that our church hosts once a week and no matter how busy my grandfather is, he always goes with her. In addition to the support group, my grandmother also begins to attend counselling with the parish priest. Both the support group and counselling has helped my grandmother’s body image as she continues to have a healthier spiritual and psychological relationship with her self. Thus, both help her cope with everything that she is going through (Walters-Brown & Hall, 2012). In addition to the resources that the team provides my family with, they also teach us how to make my grandmother feel heard and loved more, as she needs our support now more than she does before. So, whenever she tries to push us away, we let her express her feelings and we never give up on her. When she complains and gets mad, we talk to her calmly and ask her what is wrong instead of being scared and leaving her. As a result, my grandmother slowly starts to regain what cancer took from her, which is her body image.
As a second year nursing student, the new understanding of the concept of body image has immensely influenced my future practice as it provides knowledge to nurses how to look at the person in a holistic way. Every person experiences a disturbance in body image differently than another and looking at the reasons why this occurs instead of just treating every patient the same, will promote better nursing practice. Hence, I am given more knowledge than I did before through understanding the concept of body image, what causes it to be altered, consequences it can bring to a person and how nurses can help them to cope effectively and get better.
To conclude, body image affects a person’s quality of life in various ways and when an event such as discovering an illness occurs, one’s body image gets disturbed. As a result, a person tends to avoid social gatherings as well as interactions with other people because of the displeasure in their physical appearance and in how they live their lives (Rhoten, 2016). Hence, there are different causes that disturb a person’s body image and there are also numerous ways that the health care team can help not only the person but also their families.
- Cororve Gingeret, M., Teo, I., & Epner, D. E. (2014). Managing body image difficulties of adult cancer patients. Cancer, 120(5), 633.
- Rhoten, B. (2016). Body image disturbance in adults treated for cancer – a concept analysis. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 72(5), 1001-1011.
- Walters-Brown, B., & Hall, J.M. (2012). Women’s body image: implications for mental health nursing interventions. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 33(8), 553-9.