It’s time to get real about post-surgical menopause! Whether you’re 35 or 55, surgery to rid your body of cancer can launch you right into menopause — something Sherry experienced first-hand.
“At 35, hearing ‘cancer’ was a nightmare, so I immediately focused on what I needed to do to save my life,” Sherry shares. “ I had no idea the surgery I needed to survive would mean I’d start menopause!”
Women who have surgery to remove both ovaries will go through menopause. For younger patients, menopause side effects may be more profound. But doctors rarely talk with a patient about such side effects because oncologists are focused on saving the patient’s life. The Ovarian Cancer Research Fund Alliance (OCRFA) offers tips on coping with menopause symptoms.
“I didn’t have a choice: I had to have a radical hysterectomy to remove both ovaries because otherwise I would die,” Sherry explains. “But that unavoidable decision pushed me right into a phase of life I thought I had another 20 years to prepare for. Who wants to go through menopause at 35?
“It can be brutal, but I think a huge support is knowing we’re not alone. YOU are not alone. No matter what combination of events leads you to an early experience with menopause, I promise someone else has traveled a similar path.
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Maggie chose surgery to avoid cancer
Maggie Gaines is a 44-year-old mom of two who inherited a mutated BRCA2 gene, which increased her risk of developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer. “According to the stats for my mutation, I had up to a 20 percent chance of getting ovarian cancer,” she explained, adding “it felt like playing Russian roulette to keep my ovaries. … I’m not a gambler so I just wanted them out.”
At 42, she elected to remove her uterus and both ovaries. She recommends not relying on a gynecologic oncologist for information about what happens after surgery. “The truth is that the gynecological surgeon is likely not an expert on menopause,” she said. “His or her job is to get the cancer out or to mitigate cancer with a preventive surgery like mine. So my advice is, find a surgeon who you know will do the best job doing what he or she is good at, and find someone else who specializes in managing menopausal symptoms following surgery.”
Gaines found a clinic at University of Penn that specializes in BRCA patients. An oncologist there referred her to a gynecologist, who specializes in menopause. Today, she takes hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and has been surprised by minimal side effects.
“I thought I’d be sweating constantly and a total monster after surgery,” she shared. “I thought no one would want to be around me. But I’m really not that much different from what I was like before surgery. And I have not had the kind of hot flashes that make me want to rip off my clothes or send me into a soaking sweat.” Follow Maggie’s journey on Twitter (@Maggie_Reardon).
Sandy celebrates being able to wear white pants anytime!
Sandy from St. Louis, Mo., was a healthy, active 47-year-old when her doctor identified a pelvic mass and reported elevated CA-125 levels. She had a radical hysterectomy, part of her colon and multiple size tumors removed. Doctors diagnosed her with stage 3c ovarian cancer. The word “menopause” was the last thing on her mind.
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“I was so focused on hearing I had cancer it was hard to think about what I could expect after surgery,” she said. “They talked a lot about side effects of the treatments (chemo) but not about what would be happening to my body as I started to heal from the surgery.”
At 47 when she had surgery, Sandy said she was only a few years away from menopause. “Before surgery, I still had regular periods. I have to say, it is nice not to have periods anymore. I can wear white pants whenever I want!”
Her most annoying side effects were “hot flashes every hour and 50 minutes and a lack of good night sleep due to waking up so often.” While a ceiling fan helps at night, Sandy recommended having an additional fan that blows over you to help cool you down.
What about sex?
“Six weeks after surgery and after my first chemo session, I was able to have an orgasm with my husband orally helping out,” Sandy shared. “I was relieved I could still orgasm and thought our sex lives would get back to normal quickly.”
But treatment can take a toll on every woman.
“I would occasionally take care of my husband, but was not really feeling well enough to make my pleasure a priority,” she explained. “About this time, I remember a line from my support group on the topic of sex. It was, ‘Remember guys, you can have great sex without penetration!’ Other nonsexual touch (massage, feet rubbing, laying in bed together) helped us both feel close to each other during the time I was going through treatment.”
Managing menopause symptoms
Maggie said it was helpful to hear that symptoms can be managed, and they they won’t last forever. “It’s all temporary. So even if it takes some time to work it out with your doctor, you will feel better … And you may even feel better than you did before.”
She first used an estrogen patch but switched to taking estrogen orally for the convenience. “It’s worked great for me,” she said. “I was already used to taking a birth control pill, so this fits better with my lifestyle. The downside to this according to my doc is that the pill doesn’t release estrogen consistently like the patch does. So I take my pills before I go to bed, since my biggest issue was sleeping. … Now, I sleep like I always have and haven’t had any hot flashes.”
Did you go through post-surgical menopause? Do you have any tips for women who are preparing for it? Share your thoughts in the comments below or email [email protected]!