The menopause is not just about hot flushes and no more periods. It is about taking some time to re-set yourself: adjust your crown and move forward.
How come nobody really talks about the menopause?
I honestly didn’t know much about the menopause before it hit me at the age of 42 as a result of the breast cancer treatment that I was receiving at the time. I seriously thought the menopause was just the end of periods and a few hot flushes. But it is not just that. It is so much more. It is so much more on a physical level and so much more on an emotional level. So how come we don’t hear about it much? How come the women who are going through it are not swinging from the ceiling shouting about it? How come it isn’t openly discussed between mothers and daughters, or between friends?
Half the world’s population (or thereabouts) is female, which means that half the population will go through the menopause at some point. Right now, as I write this, it is currently estimated that approximately 13 billion women are going through the menopause. And yet, it is not really talked about openly. When my menopausal symptoms started I talked about them quite openly with whomever I happened to be with, and it turns out that I wasn’t alone: one of my friends went through the menopause in her early thirties, another friend was currently going through it and she had just turned forty, another friend was mid-menopause (she is 52) and a stack of friends aged between mid-forties to early fifties were experiencing some of the peri-menopause symptoms. And yet, none of them were openly talking about it. It was like they had to keep it a secret. They were dealing with it on their own: quietly, silently going through a whole range of, quite frankly, horrible symptoms and keeping it to themselves.
Even when going through a medically induced menopause as part of breast cancer treatment, nobody really talks about it. The oncologist mentioned in at one of my appointments, almost as an aside to everything else. OK, I get that going through the menopause reduces my risk of recurrence and that is a good thing, but still, going through the menopause is a huge thing for someone, especially when she is not expecting it and has a stack of other things going on in her life.
So why do people not talk about it? It there a taboo against talking about anything to do with menstruation or periods? Is it because going through the menopause represents reaching some of sort of ‘past-it’ point that that nobody wants to acknowledge or own up to? Along with the constant pressure upon women to look ‘good for their age’ by working out, eating the right food, wearing the right clothes and maintaining a young at heart spirit, is going through the menopause some sort of inadequacy on our part? Does it mean that we are officially old and aged? Are women embarrassed to be reaching this point in their lives? Is it just viewed as a rite of passage that every woman will go through, and not worth the fuss? Or is it like childbirth: in the same way that nobody really wants to tell the pregnant woman quite how awful childbirth is, nobody wants to tell any woman quite how unpleasant the menopause is?
The menopause brings some unpleasant things to the party
Yes, the menopause brings some pretty unpleasant things to the party: hot flushes which are not innocent little flushes of heat which can be dissipated by the mere wave of a fan but are in fact cruel, intense, burning flashes rising up from the chest to the tip of the scalp and which can hit completely out of the blue at any point during the day with no regard to what you might be doing; night sweats which like the daytime hot flushes hit out of nowhere and prevent you ever having a full night of sleep; anxiety – sometimes crippling and other times bubbling under the surface; upside-down, back-to-front, inside-out emotions; vaginal dryness and loss of libido – yes I am talking about drying up down there and never ever wanting to have sex ever again (which can then, inevitably lead to marital issues because men just carry on going with their constant, unfaltering sex drive which in no way reflects the changes going on in a woman’s body); a loss in bone density and associated risk of osteoporosis; joint pain; memory issues – like a fog has descended on your brain making you forget names, where you left the pile of clean washing and other short term memory loss; and just to make it harder to deal with all the other symptoms, the menopause drains you of all energy making you permanently tired and fatigued.
For me, dealing with these symptoms is almost an extension of dealing with the side effects of chemotherapy and radiotherapy: so similar are they. Not that it makes it any easier – to be honest I had hoped that once breast cancer treatment was over I could focus on my physical and mental recovery. But going through the menopause means that I am still dealing with all sorts of physical and emotional issues on a daily basis.
Coming to terms with what the menopause represents
And in addition to the physical and emotional effects, I think that a big issue for most women is the coming to terms with what the menopause represents – or rather, what it is perceived to represent. Let’s not allow it to represent being old, past-it or beyond our prime. Let’s view it as just another step in life. Ignoring cancer recurrence and survival statistics for the moment, if the average life expectancy of the British female is around 83, going through the menopause at, say 55, is actually only two thirds through your life expectancy. You still have one third left. And as years 1 – 18 are taken up by childhood, menopause could be said to take place half way through your adult years. We are not past our prime. We are just reaching the prime of our lives. And for those of us who have had a cancer diagnosis and are living under the fear of cancer returning, surely that is all the more reason to not allow the menopause to mark the end of something: instead let’s view it as the start of the next chapter. An exciting, inspiring, let’s-do-this chapter.
So, I say take the menopause as a time to both reflect and look forward. Take a pause (after all, it’s kind of telling you to do that), a deep breath and look back on all that you have achieved so far in life, and then, hold your head up high, adjust your crown and proudly move forward to make the most of the rest of your life. And when the menopausal symptoms impact upon your daily life and get in the way, seek professional advice (whether that is the GP and/or a counsellor), research your options, talk about them (because you are not alone) and be informed.
Talk about it, read about it, ask for help and research your options
There is an enormous amount of helpful advice online. There are menopause cafes, menopause clinics and plenty of support groups where you can go and chat to others going through the same thing.
My recommendations are (some are relevant to chemo induced menopause and other are entirely non-cancer related):
Menopause Support is a website providing lots of information and support for women going through the menopause (non-cancer related).
Henpicked is a website about all sorts of things relevant to the over-40 woman, including the menopause: “We want everyone to talk about menopause openly without embarrassment and those suffering with symptoms to have the help and support they need.”
Hotflush “We offer supportive, straightforward tips and advice on how women can deal with the multitude of menopause symptoms. We talk about food & diet, lifestyle & wellbeing, alternative therapies, being savvy with supplements and report on the latest thinking on HRT to help women make an informed choice.”
Meg’s Menopause is an “open source of information and advice and is dedicated to empowering women through an honest and frank discussion of all things menopause.”