It happened one night when I was sitting in bed watching Netflix. It was late in summer in Brisbane but it was a mild night and I was comfy in my PJs when a wave of heat flushed my face. I flipped back the doona, turned the fan on and realised that this was something I needed to pay attention to and research further.
For a couple of months prior to that night, I had been noticing that I was always sweating, mostly on my face. Initially, I put it down to summer in Brisbane and the humidity. I had moved from Melbourne just one year before so this was my first full summer in Brisbane and I assumed I just couldn’t handle the humid weather. (I still can’t, but this was different).
I grabbed a bamboo hand fan and kept it in my handbag and I was using it 15-20 times a day. It seemed ridiculous! I was constantly looking for a breezeway, picking up anything I could fan myself with or tearing off layers of clothing. I asked mum while we were having dinner one night “aren’t you hot?”. She said no and that I must still be adjusting to the humidity. This went on for a while until I mentioned it in passing to my oncologist during a monthly checkup.
“It’s probably menopause,” she said casually, and “I’ll write you a referral to the endocrinologist here but they probably won’t see you for months, it’s not that serious.” She also wrote me a blood test request.
I was shocked. I was 37! It certainly is that serious! I know that some cancer treatments can cause temporary “chemical” menopause, or sometimes permanent if you have surgery to remove the ovaries. But my treatment wasn’t anything like that, it had never been mentioned before.
Menopause is when a person with ovaries stops producing eggs, stops menstruating and as a result estrogen levels drop dramatically. Some common side effects are hot flushes/flashes, sleep disturbance, irritability, weight gain, brain fog and aches and pain.
It was confirmed for me via a blood test that I was in fact in menopause. (It is not usually diagnosed by blood test alone, in my case because of my age and treatment this was how it was tested, and my period had ceased spontaneously)
For me, there isn’t a way we can determine if it is a side effect of my immunotherapy or radiotherapy treatment, or if it’s unrelated and I’m one of the unlucky 1% of women who go into menopause before the age of 40..
There is no treatment to reverse premature menopause. Symptom management is the only option for me now, and as I’ll be in a long period of post-menopause I do need to ensure I am protected from osteoporosis and heart disease. After trying a few different types of hormone replacement therapies (HRT), (also known as menopause hormone treatment (MHT)) I am now using a gel and a tablet daily to minimise my symptoms. Hot flushes were definitely the worst, at 15-20 per hour, and I’m now down to 4-5 per day. Luckily I have my bamboo fans ready to help with a cool breeze!
There are many things that I have had to give up while being treated for cancer, but at no point did I ever think I would go into menopause. I no longer have the ability to be pregnant with my own child and I will be on long term medication for more than a decade. I have to make significant changes to my daily life to be able to remember all the important things because I have a double dose of brain fog and find it so difficult to concentrate.
Menopause is something that doesn’t usually happen until midlife, we don’t talk about it until it happens to us, and even then it seems to be something we suffer through in silence. 50% of our population in their 40s and 50s are going through this and I definitely think we need a more open honest discussion about it - including friends and partners. The more understanding and support there is, it’ll be better for us all.
(Reference: Better Health Victoria)