Megan Roantree talks to two women about their experience of early menopause, and what that's meant for them physically, emotionally and practically
From as early as our preteens, we are told about periods in a way that is almost synonymous with becoming a woman. We’re told they’ll hurt, they’ll get in the way of everyday things, but that once it happens for you, you’re a grown-up. Menopause is supposed to be something that comes much later. Thanks to TV tropes and outdated stereotypes, many of us associate it with getting older and entering a new stage of our life, and thanks to stigma, we’re often not talking about it until it’s happening, putting it on the long finger with so many other things. But for some women, menopause comes at a time that contradicts everything we’re taught, and with it comes a long list of questions and struggles.
Carole was just 31 when she faced early menopause following a cervical cancer diagnosis.
“While my doctors did everything they could to protect my ovaries from the radiation treatment on my pelvis they, unfortunately, didn’t survive,” she explains. “I had two surgeries during the summer of 2017, one to remove the tumour and the other to move my ovaries high into my torso to protect them from the radiation treatment I started in the autumn. It wasn’t until November that I started to get symptoms and realise quite quickly that they had been damaged.”
Carole admits that before her illness, she never considered that she’d face menopause so early in her life.
“My doctors wanted to give me the best chance at avoiding menopause, when it is brought on medically through surgery it is severe and can be felt from the moment you wake up. They spoke to me and I did my own research, before that I had no clue.
“I guess all I knew about menopause was what you see on TV or in movies or what people joke about; hot flushes, sweating, ageing, drying up down below or the extreme side of having a low sex drive and finding a toyboy,” she explains.
Over the past two years, Carole has experienced all sorts of issues due to early menopause, some of which she describes as ‘torture’. “The heat (known as hot flushes) killed me, my temperature would swing quite rapidly from one extreme to the other. The heat creeps on my skin like needles and slowly takes over my whole body, it’s not like you’re just too warm it’s an all-encompassing, pass-out heat that comes and goes. I still experience it at times, thankfully at a lesser degree.
“Fatigue is another symptom I struggle with, this is really hard to manage and explain to people. I want to be able to plan weekends away with my friends but sometimes even the thought of it is exhausting and I know I’m not able.”
“This stops me from doing things I enjoy like the gym or weekends away. I have often felt so completely depleted of energy that even watching Netflix is too much. I can’t sleep as much anymore either even though I’m tired most of the time, it’s like menopause is this curse that tortures you to the brink. There were nights last year where I would only get about three hours of sleep and then have to try and function like a normal person in work, it had a huge impact on my mood. I would love to sleep more to help with the fatigue but my hormones and or the heat won’t allow it, it’s incredibly frustrating.”
When we associate fertility with qualities like womanhood and youth, those things can feel compromised when faced with early menopause. “I cried so hard when I was told I was officially menopausal,” Carole recalls. “It felt like the end of the world. In reality, it’s not but it’s really tough because it’s not spoken about so you feel like you’re the only one. I mourned my femininity, my life before all of this and the future I couldn’t have. I felt like the days of being young, attractive, fit and full of life were gone before I really appreciated them. It has a big impact on self-worth. I questioned my relationship and our future, I asked, why would my partner want to be with me when he could find an energetic, fertile woman with a normal sex drive? All those things circle in your head while you’re also dealing with the physical symptoms.”
Becky Kearns was diagnosed with early menopause after coming off the pill to try for a baby when she was 27. “My cycles were very frequent but at first I thought it was just my body settling down after contraception, I never even considered that it might be early menopause. I had a niggle that something might be wrong with my fertility and knew I would find it difficult to conceive with such short cycles and so I pushed with my GP to investigate my fertility further.
“Eventually, they ran some hormone tests on day 3 of my cycle, even though they were convinced that at my age there wouldn’t be an issue. My FSH (follicle stimulating hormone) was much higher than it should be indicating that my body was needing to work hard to produce an egg for ovulation. It was only through further tests that I found out my egg reserve was very low and so I was diagnosed with Premature Ovarian Failure – what a lovely word to use… failure.”
Like Carole, Becky faced difficult symptoms including low moods, irritability, anxiety, and fatigue.
“When I was diagnosed I didn’t really take it all in, the only thing I heard was that it would be unlikely that I’d have a genetic child – something that devastated me,” Becky adds.
Whether becoming a mother is part of the plans or not, women who face early menopause are also faced with a lot of immediate obstacles and decisions about fertility. For Becky, becoming a mum was something she desperately wanted, and the impact her menopause had on that was a lot to deal with.
“We went through 5 IVF cycles with my eggs, with four failed cycles and one positive, which sadly ended in miscarriage,” she recalls. Still, Becky praises IVF and the option of donor eggs which she says fulfilled her dream of becoming a mum. “I now have three girls, one-year-old twins, and a two and a half-year-old. I’ve felt old before my time and a failure as a woman at some points but now I’ve come to accept my situation and am so grateful to have the chance to be a mum,” she adds. She’s now set to begin hormone replacement therapy.
For Carole, having children wasn’t necessarily something she planned, so when she was faced with cancer, she had to act quickly. “I was only with my boyfriend a year when we faced all of this. We didn’t get much time to think about it as my surgery was quite urgent so we had an appointment with the Rotunda IVF clinic and I started the injections a couple of days later. We froze embryos and have three waiting patiently for us should we acquire the funds to go down that route. Thankfully, when I was told I’d never conceive and carry my own child, I wasn’t devastated but I know many women would be. My partner, on the other hand, has always wanted children and still struggles. It put huge pressure on our relationship and put the fear of God into me about our future,” she admits but adds that she is aware that there are options available for them. “We’ll explore our options when we need to in the future and for now we’ve two cats who are more than enough!”
When it comes to treatment, Carole says there is something for everyone: “Just like the contraceptive pill there are numerous types of medication available and you just need to find the right one. I am on my third now and feel an improvement but I guess I don’t know what I should be feeling and what the new normal is. I’m taking supplements to ensure I’m getting all the vitamins and minerals I need and getting some exercise to help with mood and energy. Things like a silk mask, tower fan and relaxing candles have made my bedroom a haven.”
Adding words of support to anyone else in the same boat, Carole says: “You’re still the same woman you were before, you can get through it and you’ll be the best resource to your friends when they go through it in years to come.”
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