By the time my menopause started, my body was no stranger to drastic hormone fluctuations. It was also no stranger to going long stretches without my period, having given birth four times in under six years. But of all the things I expected my thirties to bring my way, the furthest thing from my mind was a change that is typically associated with aging, loss of femininity, and very unsexy symptoms. It took me a minute to really wrap my head around the concept of going through menopause at a time when some of my friends were still having babies.
Early signs of menopause typically include erratic and unpredictable periods. Although it is not unusual for this to start in women in their early forties, they tend to show up in the late forties to early fifties range.
I didn’t have any early signs because my period stopped rather suddenly due to the chemotherapy I underwent for breast cancer. I was thirty-five, had four little kids, and had just undergone a preventative double mastectomy to avoid dying of breast cancer like my mother and her mother had in their forties. I was told that once the chemo was out of my system, my period would start again. But due to strong family history and the fact that I was BRCA1 positive, my ovaries were removed once I finished chemo on the advice of my doctors.
My symptoms didn’t appear right away, but when they did, they included:
• Hot flashes
• An inability to fall or stay asleep at night
• Thinning eyebrows (but that could have just as well been residual chemo effects)
• Bone loss (meaning my bone strength deteriorated over time)
• Mood swings (but that was also a period symptom so, no news there)
Commonly reported symptoms, which I did not experience were;
• Night sweats
• Vaginal dryness
• Weight gain/metabolism change
A note about the metabolism thing: it took ten years, but that one finally caught up with me. By the time I was forty-five, I had realized that I could no longer eat unlimited amounts of cake without feeling it in my suddenly-too-tight pants.
While my symptoms were undoubtedly an inconvenience, the knowledge that I’d potentially saved myself from ovarian cancer made them more manageable. Raising four little kids was also a great distraction and didn’t give me time to wallow in my discomfort. My hot flashes were NOT the kind portrayed in movies, where you’re shopping in Target and suddenly transform into a walking human ocean. I learned to layer my clothes with a tank top as a base, so I could always remove items to cool off.
I wish I’d thought to make the connection between a lack of sleep and lack of estrogen because I waited years before asking my doctor for help. The solution was simple; a prescription pill each night before bedtime to help me drift to sleep and stay asleep. I’ve been taking them for about eight years, and it’s been life-altering.
As for bone loss, I see a rheumatologist who puts me on various medications to ensure that my bone health remains stable. I also do weight-bearing exercise, which has been proven to help. It won’t go back to my pre-menopausal levels, but the key is not to allow it to get worse until it’s age-appropriate for that to happen. At this point, my bone density is almost normal for my age and demographic anyway.
A good friend of mine, whose perimenopausal symptoms started when she was forty-one, lamented that menopause is something that isn’t discussed nearly enough. She was sure she was the only one her age who was having erratic periods, and after countless pregnancy tests came back negative, she started to worry that something more sinister was at play. Of course, it wasn’t; this was confirmed by seeing her doctor. But when she finally did start talking to other women about her symptoms, she found that she wasn’t alone. As one of her friends put it, “You take more pregnancy tests in your forties than you do in your twenties.”
She is also on hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to mitigate her symptoms- unlike mine, her hot flashes and night sweats were intense. Unfortunately, because of my breast cancer, HRT was not an option for me, and I’m grateful that my menopausal symptoms were bearable.
They are also long gone. What is not gone, as many people facing menopause fear will be the case, is my femininity. Our bodies are wondrous, mysterious, powerful things, capable of so much, but I don’t think that womanhood is tied only to our bodies. Femininity is also a sense of self-assuredness, of character, of owning who we are and not allowing ourselves to be defined by the external. If anything, I feel a greater sense of feminine power, having decided to give up my breasts and ovaries to stay alive.
So, do I miss having my period? Not even a little bit. Even less so when I slide chocolate under my daughter’s door each month as she groans in her bed with a hot water bottle pressed to her abdomen.