Self-image and changes to appearance from leukemia

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Learn how to help your child accept changes in appearance caused by leukemia treatment.

Key points

  • Children and teens may undergo changes in their appearance from leukemia treatment, such as hair loss, weight changes, scarring, or skin problems.
  • If you show distress at your child's changed appearance, it may upset them more.
  • Several organizations offer tools for people with cancer to feel better about their appearance.
  • Emphasize your child's strength in dealing with their illness and changes in appearance, and that these changes are mostly temporary.

Your child or teenager may look different as a result of their leukemia treatment. For example, they may have lost their hair, or may have scarring, weight changes, or skin problems such as acne.

Remind them that most of these changes are temporary and will go away with time.

Many children and teenagers become self-conscious or embarrassed about these changes. They may feel nervous about whether their peers will accept their changes in appearance. It will take time and they may need extra support to adjust to this life-changing situation.

Starting at diagnosis and throughout treatment, your child or teenager may have feelings of loss. They need to understand that these feelings are normal and that they are a unique individual going through an extraordinary situation. Encourage them to talk about their feelings.

Be aware of your reaction to your child's changes in appearance. While it is healthy to show your emotions, if you are very distressed by how your child looks, it may upset them more.

Keep in mind that self-image differs depending on developmental stage. For example, a toddler might not mind losing their hair or may think it is great if other family members shave off their hair too. On the other hand, a teenage girl may be devastated by the loss of all her hair. Let your child take the lead on dealing with their appearance. If they want, you can introduce them to choices for hair alternatives such as wigs, hair dyes, or hats.

Numerous organizations are available to help people with cancer feel better about their appearance. The Look Good Feel Better Program, for example, holds workshops for young people with cancer to help them with their personal appearance.

Eventually your child or teenager will get to a point where they feel more comfortable with how they look. They may be able to think about appearance-related changes in a positive way and feel brave in handling the physical and emotional challenges that come with leukemia. Emphasize your child’s character and strength in dealing with negative experiences, illness, or changes in appearance. As an example, you can talk about the change being the result of necessary treatment for their health. The change becomes a sign of bravery, and not a sign that they are different. Another idea is to acknowledge your child’s strength by giving stickers on a calendar or “bravery beads" for each procedure they get through to make a necklace.

Last updated: March 6th 2018