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Impact of physical appearance changes reported by adolescent and young adult cancer survivors: A qualitative analysis

Mary-Ellen E Brierley, Ursula M Sansom-Daly, Julia Baenziger, Brittany McGill, Claire E Wakefield
European Journal of Cancer Care 2019 April 26, : e13052
Poor body image may be one driver of distress for adolescent and young adults (AYAs) after cancer. We explored physical appearance changes reported by AYA cancer survivors to understand impacts on body image, distress, lifestyle and health behaviours. We recruited AYAs (15-25 years) who had completed cancer treatment. Using semi-structured interviews, we asked participants about appearance changes resulting from their cancer. We used iterative thematic analyses to explain experiences. Forty-three participants (51% male, mean age = 21 years) completed an interview. Two key themes emerged. Participants discussed physical appearance changes and psychosocial impacts including appraisal of their changed appearance. Thirty-eight participants (n = 38/43) reported that their cancer and/or treatment changed their appearance (most commonly: alopecia [n = 15/43], scarring [n = 14/43] and weight gain [n = 11/43]). Ten participants (n = 10/43) acknowledged body dissatisfaction. Other impacts included feeling a loss of identity, not being recognised by peers and feeling helpless to change. Our results have translational significance for AYA care. Body image concerns should be considered a potential barrier to successful reintegration post-treatment. AYAs may benefit from familial and peer support, healthy lifestyle interventions and clinical environments catering to appearance-related sensitivities.


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