Are you satisfied with your body image?

Research aims to provide therapy for body image dissatisfaction in breast cancer survivors
March 3rd, 2017
Women in pink shirts, representing breast cancer awareness, hold their hands up in the air.
Photo: Getty Images.

During and after breast cancer treatment, many women experience body image dissatisfaction.

“This may be directly related to the changes inherent in cancer treatment, such as surgical changes. However, since body image dissatisfaction is quite common in women, it may be pre-existing body image dissatisfaction that is exacerbated by aspects of cancer treatment,” said Dr. Adria Pearson-Mauro, a clinical psychologist and Assistant Professor in the Departments of Family Medicine and Psychiatry at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.  Her clinical practice at the University of Colorado Depression Center and the UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital WISH Clinic includes adults with a wide range of psychiatric diagnoses.

Dr. Pearson-Mauro is currently leading a treatment study in collaboration with the CU Breast Center for body image dissatisfaction in breast cancer survivors. The treatment study is a workshop for women with breast cancer and those up to two years post-treatment.

The study is part of an institutional research grant (IRG) she received from the American Cancer Society in 2015 to develop and pilot the study based on the treatment intervention she uses. This treatment for body image dissatisfaction is detailed in her book, “Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Body Image Dissatisfaction” (available in stores).  Prior research shows this approach helps women with body image dissatisfaction, and she is hopeful the approach will also be useful to treating body image concerns associated with breast cancer.

Over the past couple of years Dr. Pearson-Mauro has worked on development of the workshop and adaptation of the treatment protocol to an oncology population with support from Dr. Virginia Borges, a medical oncologist at the University of Colorado Cancer Center, and with support from the Department of Family Medicine.

This is a photo of Dr. Adria Pearson-Mauro, a clinical psychologist and professor in the Departments of Family Medicine and Psychiatry at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, who is conducting research on body image dissatisfaction in breast cancer survivors.
Dr. Adria Pearson-Mauro, a clinical psychologist and professor in the Departments of Family Medicine and Psychiatry at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, is conducting research on body image dissatisfaction in breast cancer survivors.

“It’s really been a collaborative effort,” Dr. Pearson-Mauro said.

The purpose of the study is to address difficulties that women of any age face after going through breast cancer treatment of any type.

“It’s a self-selective type of study – any woman who is within two years of her last treatment can participate in study, if they meet all the criteria,” she said. There is no fee – in fact, participants are compensated $50 for their time.

The workshop takes three hours a day for two consecutive days, with a two-week follow-up.

The goal is simple.

“What we’re really looking for … is improvement in quality of life and reduction in distress about body image,” she said. “The treatment is broadly focused in getting them reconnected with their values, moving forward in relationships and life in general.”

She tells them: “We recognize ‘This is a really tough time for you’ and emphasize ‘How can we move forward?’”

Her treatment method is designed to “make sure to refocus on what’s important. How you feel about your body should not drive what you decide to do with your life.

“We can’t change people’s reactions to what they’ve been through. We want to honor that every woman has her own reaction to a breast cancer diagnosis. We want to provide an opportunity to help women work through the often difficult aspect of body image dissatisfaction”.

Using teaching, exercises and sharing, the workshop can best be described as an interactive event aimed at meeting the needs of the individual participants, she said. “It’s not me standing up there and talking for three hours.”

This is a photo of Dr. Virginia Borges, a medical oncologist at the University of Colorado Cancer Center, who has worked on helping to adapt a body image treatment and workshop for an oncology population.
Dr. Virginia Borges, a medical oncologist at the University of Colorado Cancer Center, has worked on helping to adapt a body image treatment and workshop for an oncology population.

She hopes the sessions will help women feel better about themselves “as whole person.”

Surgery, chemotherapy and radiation also can all affect the body significantly, she said, and therefore body image can be impacted. Hair loss, changes in skin, weight loss or gain, changes in sexual desire and function can all be side effects of treatments.

“In fact, we found that there is not a significant difference (in body image satisfaction) between women who have had surgery and those who have not.”

Some of their body image dissatisfaction comes from feeling depressed, vulnerable and maybe even betrayed by their bodies, she said.

“Every response is individual,” she added.

The workshop is “really an exploratory study” to see if her chosen treatment mode will work.

“By broadening out the focus of their lives beyond cancer and the treatment, we try to refocus on what is important in their lives besides that. We try to teach them not to let their self-perception drive their behavior. “

During the workshop, participants will have a chance to share their feelings and experiences so they know they are not alone, but “there is never pressure on anyone to share if they don’t want to.”

Sometimes, for women who are just now women going through treatment, “it may just help them get through their day. “

Interested In Participating?

To determine if this study is for you, please contact the study team at cubodyimage@gmail.com or call 720-251-4803.

About the author

Linda DuVal is a freelance writer based in Colorado Springs who writes articles for UCHealth.