“Menopause After Cancer is a totally different ball game”
The menopause conversation is really shifting – we’re all talking about it a lot more and most of us have a much better understanding of the benefits of HRT, along with lifestyle steps that can help manage symptoms.
Defeating cancer and coming out of it is a struggle, and no one underestimates it. But there are so many other negative effects that arise because of side effects from treatment. Take lymphedema, which is a condition where the tissues swell up due to a blockage of lymph nodes. This is typically caused by radiation and chemotherapy and is a common side effect. Thankfully, we can now avail lymphedema treatment to take care of this issue. But while treatments for these common side effects do exist, there’s less focus on issues that are specific to female cancer survivors.
Menopause after cancer is something that’s barely ever discussed. It’s a totally different ballgame and people in the cancer community often feel excluded from the wider menopause conversation. That can leave women feeling even more isolated, confused and scared at what is already a deeply challenging time. Doctors will often tell you HRT isn’t an option, depending on the kind of cancer you had, so you’re left on your own, dealing with a double-whammy of menopause symptoms and the trauma, loneliness, and anxiety that can follow cancer treatment. Menopause after cancer really is the hidden menopause.
Here are the key reasons menopause after cancer is so different:
You have sudden and severe menopause symptoms
Going through menopause due to cancer treatment often means it happens very suddenly and symptoms can be more severe. Us cancer survivors don’t get the gradual hormone changes that cause perimenopausal symptoms over the course of a few years – it’s more that our bodies have quit hormones cold turkey, plunging us into menopause suddenly and intensely. And it can be very scary sitting at home on your own after cancer treatment’s finished, wondering whether these symptoms are down to menopause, side effects of treatment or even cancer itself. On top of all that, menopausal hormone changes can often trigger low mood and anxiety – which can make everything that much harder to cope with when you’re already feeling low after everything you’ve been through. You may also be suffering from mood swings, sore breasts, and general aches and pains. It might be worth it to look into getting a 3D mammogram in Sparta (or elsewhere) if you’re experiencing severe soreness or other issues with your breasts, to ensure that there are no problems.
You may have to cope with fertility loss
If you’re under 45 and still having periods, cancer treatment can bring on an early menopause – so you end up going through it long before 51, the average age a woman’s periods stop. This leaves you having to cope with the premature loss of your fertility after gruelling cancer treatment, which can be especially painful if you wanted children and haven’t had them. Even if you don’t want children or you’ve completed your family, losing your fertility early can still be very confronting.
You have to come off your HRT
Perhaps you’d already been through menopause and were coasting along quite happily on HRT. But then you got the cancer diagnosis and had to stop it abruptly, so you’re suddenly dealing with symptoms you were managing well before.
Women often put up with menopause symptoms after cancer. Lots of us tell ourselves we shouldn’t complain – we’ve survived a life-threatening illness so low libido, hot flushes and insomnia aren’t the end of the world. We’re lucky to be alive – we shouldn’t be moaning. Even if you want to seek help, who do you speak to? It can be difficult to navigate the health system and know whether you should be talking to your oncologist, nurse or GP. And you may well think there’s no point anyway – you can’t have HRT and nothing can be done so you’ll just have to put up with it.
I want to change all this. Here’s my 5-point manifesto for menopause after cancer:
- Find the right information
In my quest to help more people with a history of cancer have a better menopause experience I have founded the not-for-profit www.menopauseandcancer.org. We offer a range of accessible, practical support and services which bridge the information gap and create a sense of community and belonging. Head over for more info.
2. Talk about it
Let’s start opening up about it so we all realise we’re not alone. That in itself can be a game-changer. Join my private group chat hub on Facebook and meet other women in the same situation.
3. Download a tracker
I love the Balance app, by menopause specialist Dr Louise Newson. It helps you track your menopause symptoms so you can get a clear idea of what’s going on. That can give you a sense of control but on a more practical basis, it can also help you talk to your doctor about your symptoms without having to look back and try to remember them. I recommend printing out your results to take to an appointment.
Ask to see a specialist
Surviving cancer itself was a big step. You might feel that you should put up with some of the menopausal symptoms as you don’t want to be seen ‘ungrateful’. But you are now living and surviving and you deserve to get the help you need. As menopause care after cancer is usually more complex, you should be seen by a menopause specialist. Ask your healthcare team to refer you. Your GP or oncologist or nurse can do so. Click here to find a specialist through the British Menopause Society.
You’ve been through such a lot already. You – and your body – deserve nourishment and care. Tune into the Menopause and Cancer podcast to listen to experts who have an in depth understanding of menopause and cancer.