Having a mastectomy or other surgical procedure can be difficult to process emotionally. You might find yourself grieving the loss of what life was like before, or finding it difficult to adjust to your new body. Some people also find that their confidence and self-esteem can take a bit of a knock after having a mastectomy.
If this is something you’ve been struggling with recently, it’s important to remember that you’re not alone, your feelings are valid, and no matter what surgery you’ve had – you’re still you. And, when you feel ready, there are a few things you can do that may help to lift your spirits.
With this in mind, we’ve come up with some ideas to help boost your confidence and self-esteem after having a mastectomy. We hope you find them useful.
How can a mastectomy affect self-esteem?
A mastectomy is a surgical procedure used to remove the breast tissue of women or men with breast cancer, or those who are at a very high risk of developing it. There are a few different types of mastectomy but the operation usually involves removing most of the breast tissue and skin.
For this reason, having a mastectomy (and breast cancer itself) can bring about a number of changes that can have a significant impact on a person’s life.
The physical effects of cancer treatment, such as fatigue, pain, and issues with sleep, may mean you’re unable to do all the things you used to. And physical changes to your body can have an impact on how you feel in yourself and on your overall mental wellbeing.
We know from research that there’s a strong link between having a mastectomy and struggles with self-esteem and body image.
10 ways to get your confidence and self-esteem back after a mastectomy
Improving confidence and self-esteem can take time – and may feel particularly tricky if you’ve had a knockback.
But, while it might not change overnight, there are plenty of things you do to help yourself feel a little better every day.
We’ll cover some ideas below…
1. Try not to suppress your emotions
It’s completely normal (and expected) to feel emotional after having a mastectomy. And, in an effort to cope, some people may find themselves trying to suppress their emotions or pretending they’re okay
Though it can feel uncomfortable and difficult, an important part of the healing process involves allowing yourself the time and space to work through your emotions.
Research has found that bottling up how you feel can place significant stress on your body and end up making negative emotions stronger – something many of us may already be familiar with.
If you’re struggling to express your emotions, things like drawing or writing down how you’re feeling, practising breathing exercises, and allowing yourself time to cry can help.
2. Practise gratitude and celebrate small wins
Research has found that people who practise gratitude tend to be more confident and have higher self-esteem. And studies of breast cancer patients have linked practising gratitude with greater wellbeing.
For example, this 14-day study of women with breast cancer found that those who listed things they felt grateful for each day reported higher self-esteem, optimism, acceptance of illness, and social support – compared to those who didn’t list anything.
This is because intentionally noticing the good in our lives is known to help us develop a stronger sense of self-worth and value.
3. Use mindfulness to take hold of negative thoughts
Having ups and downs is a normal part of the healing process, but being prepared to handle any negative thoughts in a healthy way can still be useful.
Research has found that mindfulness (the art of focusing your full attention on the present moment) can encourage us to notice and remove ourselves from cycles of distressing thoughts. For example, mindfulness may offer you a wider perspective on a situation and help you to recognise that your thoughts aren’t always factual.
Some people also find that mindfulness helps them to identify negative thought patterns and triggers. An example of this is noticing that your mind spirals into a pattern of negative thinking every time you’re in a specific environment.
For more information on how to apply this to your life, our introduction to mindfulness explains how to get started.
4. Take a wider view of who you are – not just the physical aspects
Society is sometimes guilty of encouraging us to base our self-worth on physical appearance. And while this isn’t healthy for anyone, it can be particularly difficult if you struggle with body confidence.
If you feel as though you’ve lost a part of yourself through your mastectomy, it’s important to treat yourself with kindness and compassion. Remember that your physical appearance has nothing to do with who you are as a person. Kindness, generosity, loyalty, and humour are some of the most beautiful traits to have and you are more than your body.
For help with putting this into practise, you might like to have a read of our article on the power of using self-affirmations, which covers techniques such as mirror work and using physical touch to connect with areas of our body we’re self-conscious about. While the article was written in the context of finding love, there’s no reason why the same affirmations can’t be applied to the loving relationship we should have with ourselves.
You can also find more help and support in our article; 15 things you can do to start loving and accepting your body.
5. Surround yourself with people who lift you up
Research has confirmed that having positive relationships can significantly boost our confidence and self-esteem. And in any difficult situation, having positive people around you who make you feel good can make all the difference.
Equally, if anyone in your life is bringing you down or causing you to feel more self-conscious, it’s worth considering where those feelings stem from and whether or not this person is helpful to have around.
6. Lean on those around you and open up about how you feel
When you’re going through a difficult time, it can be beneficial to speak to people you love and trust about how you’re feeling.
As the saying “a problem shared is a problem halved” goes, speaking to someone about how you’re feeling can help to lift a weight off your shoulders and remind you that you’re not alone. Similarly, remember that it’s okay to admit if you’re struggling and allow people to help you – it doesn’t make you weak; in fact, quite the opposite.
If you find it difficult to ask for help, you might find out article, Asking for help – why it can be difficult and what the benefits are, useful.
Alternatively, if you’d like to speak to someone about how you feel but don’t have any close friends or family to turn to, there are other options to consider. For example, some people find that counselling can offer valuable space to express their feelings. You can find out more about alternative support systems on the Breast Cancer Now website.
7. Treat yourself to clothing you feel comfortable in
Having a mastectomy can sometimes mean that some of your clothes no longer fit the way they used to.
For this reason, treating yourself to clothing that you feel comfortable in can make a big difference to your confidence levels.
There are a number of mastectomy-specific products available, such as mastectomy bras that can help to fill out dresses, tops, and shirts. Similarly, mastectomy swimsuits come in a range of styles designed to take the emphasis away from the chest area – and some mastectomy swimwear comes with inserts to place breast forms in too.
For example, Amonena sells a range of specialist products; from clothing, swimwear, lingerie, and breast forms. They also offer a range of helpful tips for dressing post-mastectomy which includes information on everything from comfortable materials to different breast forms.
Some women find these types of products really useful. However, if you feel comfortable in your regular clothes, remember that there’s equally no need to cover signs of your surgery if you don’t want to.
8. Be patient with your sex life
There are a number of reasons why sex can be difficult after having breast cancer and/or a mastectomy. Some people report that their surgery makes them feel less attractive, others fear being seen by their partner, or find that the impact of surgery on their mood decreases their sex drive.
If you’re struggling with intimacy after a mastectomy, it’s important to allow yourself as much time as you need to heal and to have open discussions with your partner about how you’re feeling. There’s no right or wrong, so just do what feels right for you.
Then, if and when you’re ready to be intimate again, there are a number of things that may help you to feel more confident. This could be wearing what makes you feel comfortable or experimenting with different positions.
For further support and advice on navigating sex after breast cancer, you can visit Breast Cancer Now’s website.
9. Celebrate your health
It can be easy (and understandable) to focus only on what you’ve lost after having a mastectomy. But alongside allowing yourself time to grieve, it’s also important not to lose sight of what you’ve gained. For many people, this is health and time.
It’s worth thinking about what extending your life or being cancer free will allow you to do in the future, and all the things you otherwise wouldn’t be able to do if you were still unwell.
Things like making plans to look forward to or creating a vision board of your future goals can help to shed light on all the positives in your life.
10. Reach out for additional support if needed
If you’d like some additional help and support, there are a range of resources to lean into.
Some people find it useful to join a support group because it allows them to connect with other people who are going through the same thing. While it’s helpful to speak to close friends and family members about how you feel, connecting with people who can directly relate to your situation offers a unique outlet. Some people say that it helps them to feel more heard and understood.
If this is something you’d like to consider, Macmillan Cancer Support has information on how to find a support group near you. UK charity Flat Friends also has a private Facebook group where women can come together and talk about the practical and emotional matters of life after a mastectomy.
For more general support, charities such as Breast Cancer Now, Macmillan Cancer Support, and Cancer Research UK offer a range of services and advice – including online forums, helplines, and reading resources. You can also find a list of breast cancer support services across the UK on the Cancer Care Map website.
Life after a mastectomy can be difficult to navigate emotionally, and many people find it can take a toll on their confidence and self-esteem. But if things seem bleak, it’s important to remember that you’re still you, and it’s completely possible to get your spark back.
Healing is a process, so remember to practise patience and always treat yourself with the love and compassion you deserve.
For further reading, head over to the healthy mind section of our website. Here you’ll find a range of inspiring articles like; 16 ways to improve your confidence and self-esteem and How to build more joy into your daily life.