A fire has started at the bottom of my ribs. It caught hold in an instant. Creeping upwards, slowly at first but I know what’s coming…it’s picking up pace…then whoosh; my chest, head, face and whole body is washed with heat. Fever type heat, taking over the lymph nodes, my forehead, my entire skin. All my sweat glands are working overtime and can’t compete, they give up. It’s a hot flush or flash and boy is it flashy. It makes its presence known.
Now, I’m hot and wet. Nup. Not that kind. The kind where you feel grubby, like you need a shower and a change of clothes. The night sweats are the worst (well for heat), waking up absolutely drenched, the bed linen soaked and feeling too hot to sleep (if I had any in the first place) …and knowing it will happen again in 10 minutes or an hour (if I’m lucky).
The worst is when you get up, feel good, have a shower, do your makeup, still feel good and then while you are finishing off drying your hair or just as you leave the house or need to head for a train…. whoosh it happens again…. that good feeling a distance memory when frustration, feeling stinky and in need of a second shower takes over. Decisions; go out sweaty or be late and have another shower. Lovely. Stinky wins most of the time. I hate being late. I feel like a woman of the Victorian age as I spray myself with perfume to cover up the body odour.
Mid-life crisis or Climacteric or ?
Speaking of ages and eras, I googled menopause and synonyms came up; maturity, mid-life crisis, climacteric, grand climacteric (no less), matureness, post maturity. Mid-life crisis – what an unhelpful way to talk about menopause. Though finally and slowly, Menopause is being talked about (mind you, we could do with a royal to take up the band wagon and bring it into the bright light). Climacteric is an interesting one, apart from referring to Menopause in medical circles it also denotes a critical period or event and having extreme and far-reaching implications or results. I got a shock when I discovered what some of these far-reaching implications were. Men, this is just one of the places where you come in!
In the week when I decided to research Menopause and Cancer the universe must have been aligning; three different sources of Menopause information happened into my path. The first one; I turned on the radio and heard the presenter say a piece on Menopause was coming up. Perfect timing.
Menopause; a completely natural process involving women’s bodies producing less oestrogen and changing progesterone hormone levels. I’ll come back to the implications of these in part two of this blog. For now, let me tell you about something I heard on the radio that shocked me. The host talked of how she had discovered some high flying, dynamic women at the top of their career had left their jobs due to the difficulty they had experienced in managing the symptoms of menopause.
Shocked doesn’t really explain it. In this day and age? I didn’t doubt that the symptoms must have been horrendous; I was stunned that women were not being adequately supported by medicine or natural means to enable a normal physiological transition to be facilitated so that their lives and work were not impacted in such a significant way. The feminist in me wondered if men would have put up with this state of affairs though to be reasonable, menopause appears to be a learning curve for many of us. Consequently, I was shocked.
I was even more shocked when men joined the discussion and explained their relationships had broken down, divorce had resulted and they described their many regrets about not having understood what the women in their lives were going through during menopause.
Job loss, love loss. OMG. Menopause, you can be incredibly cruel and we need to talk about you, a whole lot more. Now!
Symptoms and Years
In my humble opinion, Menopause symptoms are sh*t: mood swings, hot flushes, night sweats, brain fog, short term memory loss, difficulty in finding words and string sentences together, fatigue, low libido and vaginal dryness. They often start when women are in their 40s and 50s though can start when women are much younger.
Symptoms often last YEARS. Men, please note this. YEARS not weeks or months. Most women (8 out 101) face life impacting menopause symptoms for between 3 and 7 years and for some women, the rest of their lives. On top of this, perimenopause (the few years before menopause starts) usually brings unhelpful, generally unwanted symptoms too including disrupted sleep, headaches and heavy periods.
Ok, not all women experience these symptoms so we must be careful of making assumptions however MOST women do find themselves having to go through yet another massive learning curve about their body. And guys, it would be great if you came along for the educational ride. Not least because men go through a ‘pause’ of sorts too!
For men, it’s called andropause and refers to age-related changes in male hormone levels. Male menopause (not necessarily a helpful term) involves a drop in testosterone production in men who are age 50 or older. It’s often affiliated with hypogonadism. Both conditions involve lowered testosterone levels and similar symptoms.
You’re getting on my wick…
Ha. So we DO have an excuse for being irritable and bitchy. Sort of…well, not really…because it’s not that helpful, is it? Usually most of us just feel worse when we let irritation get the better of us and say or do something we wish we hadn’t said or done. However, when we know hormones may be playing a big part in our mood we can use our awareness to catch ourselves in our irritation and then choose our words and actions carefully, with more sensitivity. Not always easy but likely to result in a better day. It’s also OK to acknowledge we are feeling easily irritated!!
The more we talk about menopause, the more men and women will be able to identify when peri-menopause and menopause start. We can then learn about the options for managing the unhelpful symptoms. Finally, both men and women can then practice and take responsibility for being supportive, tolerant and understanding of each other and ourselves as we go through these changes. Maybe then, we’ll be able to avoid mountains from molehills and the extremes; relationship challenges and break down, negative outcomes for career and lifestyle.
Now imagine dealing with all of this…and cancer…and chemo.
Except, there’s more.
I wish it was just the symptoms listed above and the frequent embarrassment that accompanies them, that many women were dealing with. Going through the menopause can play havoc with women’s sense of identity, sexiness, and value in the world. Western society still predominantly relates to the menopause phase as women becoming old and somewhat invisible rather than being mature, loving and fully living life.
Edna M. Astbury-Ward summed it up well in her 2003 paper
The social construction of menopause as the entry point to old age may represent a challenging and difficult time, because while women may feel young, society tends to perceive them as rather less attractive and less fully functioning. This perception of menopause as a negative milestone is often found only in Western cultures. Medical culture also influences the meanings of middle and old age, particularly for women at the time of approaching menopause.
Cultural bias against ageing and sexuality has contributed to that stereotyping of older women as asexual. In general, the media has not served the ageing female well. Older men are often marketed as sexy, yet older women are rarely seen outside of advertisements for hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and Conti knickers.2
I suspect we need a new, positive and helpful narrative for the completely natural yet often difficult to go through transition that is menopause. The recent menopause cafe phenomenon may be helping with this as a space is provided to discuss menopause and challenge stereotypes.³ Princess Anne, Duchess of Cambridge, Kate; Duchess of Sussex, Meghan – you don’t fancy taking up the band wagon, do you?
Chemo vs Menopause
This was the backdrop to my realisation that chemotherapy and menopause symptoms are eerily very similar. I had been struggling to manage some of the chemo symptoms, particularly the lack of good quality sleep yet they may not have been chemo side effects at all (or at least not current side effects).
My next challenge along this cancer journey was now starkly obvious; to work out how best to support myself over the next year of treatment or to review treatment options, I needed to discern what was a chemo symptom and what was a menopause symptom and then learn how to address each in the best way for me. In the back of my mind it also occurred to me that I may end up going through this whole process twice so getting a handle on it was crucial to enjoying my life and living it to the full. Twice, because my menopause was possibly chemotherapy induced and not following its natural path. I was yet to find out if there was a chance my symptoms would stop then start again once chemotherapy was complete (joy of joys).
There it was, a whirlpool of thoughts swirling around, when in the space of a few days, I turned on the radio at the right time, walked into a foetal medicine building to use the loo only to discover a medical exhibition on menopause and noticed a webinar series advertised on social media involving a week of interviews where experts in menopause shared their pearls of wisdom.
Timing and attention; thank you, Universe.
Part two coming up -– the nuggets from the Menopause experts and my oncologists’ stand-off!
I am going to take a breather now… oh, and another shower.
2 Astbury-Ward, E. (2003) ‘Menopause, sexuality and culture: Is there a universal experience? Sexual and Relationship Therapy’. Journal of the British Association for Sexual and Relationship Therapy. 18(4), 437-445
³ https://www.theguardian.com/society/menopause – Menopause café and challenging stereotypes about aging.
© 2018 Janine Hayward www.psychingoutcancer.com. All rights reserved.