body image

How Can Teen Cancer Survivors Build A Healthy Body Image?

For some childhood cancer survivors, the teen years are very hard. We all know the teen years are tough years anyway. But if you have anything that’s a little bit different about you, it makes them even harder.

Teens who have had cancer may go through a lot of big developmental years with pretty significant side effects.

Most of their issues are about appearance.

Just going out in the general public and getting strange looks can be hard if they have weird hair patterns or bone structure issues.

They may have people pointing at them and making comments. I think that’s probably one of the hardest long-term things these kids may face.


Maybe the kids in their smaller elementary school knew their story. But when they’re 14 or 15 and just starting high school, not everyone there will realize what they’ve been through.

Here are some of the more common body image issues that teen cancer survivors may face—and how to help them build a healthy body image.

What Are Some Of The Common Body Image Issues Teen Cancer Survivors May Struggle With?

Hair Loss

Permanent hair loss is one issue. Kids who get radiation to their skull may not grow their normal hair back.

Chemotherapy can also cause temporary hair loss. So, their hair comes back, but it may have a different growth pattern. Or they may have some spots that won’t grow hair.

Surgical Scars

Another issue is when kids have had any kind of a surgery that’s left a defect of some kind.

They can have scars from their tumor removal on their abdomen, back, or head. They may also have a scar on their chest wall where their port was removed.

Some kids are proud of their “battle scars,” but others may be self-conscience when changing clothes in front of others or when wearing a swimsuit at the pool.

Uneven Growth

For teenagers who were small children when they were diagnosed and got radiation to a body part—like part of their face or neck, or an extremity—those bones may not grow at a normal rate.

They may have one side of their face that’s smaller, or one arm or leg that’s shorter. That bone probably doesn’t have a lot of growth potential left once it gets radiated.

So, if you got the left side of your jaw radiated at age 6, when you’re 16, the right side of your jaw will look like a 16-year-old’s, but the left side may still look like a 6-year-old’s.

Some kids go through their formative years with these issues. Most of the time these issues can be repaired with some type of reconstructive surgery, but plastic surgeons usually prefer to hold off on surgery until a child has reached his maximum growth potential.

How Can Teens Build A Healthy Body Image After Cancer Treatment?

Some body image issues can be easier to cope with than others.

For instance, figuring out a good hairstyle to fit that area with permanent hair loss can help.

In their late teen years, they may be able to have some type of reconstructive surgery done—such as to their face or neck area to even out the structure—but until they reach that age, not much can be done.

But there are other ways to help teens who are struggling with body image issues.

Talk To Someone.

Some teens may need to see a therapist to help them work through their feelings. It’s important to help them to figure out what they need. Maybe it’s talking to another cancer survivor, like an adult who went through all the body image issues after they were treated for cancer as a child and is now doing fine.

Rehearse How You Will Handle Questions About Your Appearance.

It can be hard for kids at that age to go back and talk about what they’ve been through, but I think it can help if the other kids know what’s going on. Maybe their peer group can have a better understanding of what they’ve been through, too.

Remember, You’re More Than How You Look.

I think a lot of how well teens are able to cope has to do with how they deal with their diagnosis growing up. That plays a big role in how they handle it when they get to their teen years. It’s what their self-image is built upon.

I’ve seen some phenomenal situations where kids develop an attitude where they don’t really care about what other people think. They have such self-confidence.

Making sure they’re aware of their self-worth is a huge, huge thing.

Anisa Hoie
I've been a nurse for nearly 32 years, mostly taking care of kids with cancer. My job is to give the kids and their families a personal touch while they go through treatment.

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