Debra Waters spoke to three women who experienced the onset of menopause before the age of 40.
The NHS describes early menopause as one that occurs before the age of 45, although a menopause that occurs before the age of 40 is often called premature. Here, Maggie Magennis, Jo Behari and Lisa Bain describe how early menopause affected them.
Maggie Magennis, 57, Charity Worker
I was 39 when I started the menopause. I had just had my second child and basically my periods never came back. There might have been occasional bleeds but never a proper period. I did joke to myself that that was my body saying, ‘No more kids – you can’t do it again. You’re too knackered!’
My periods had been light for many years, though they were regular, and when I was in my late 20s a clumsy (male) doctor suggested that maybe this was the start of the menopause and I remember almost shouting ‘no’ at him. I was pretty sure he was wrong and what a dreadful thing to suggest to a young woman! And my mum started her menopause in her early 50s [women whose mothers have an early menopause can be predisposed too]. When my periods didn’t come back I thought it was associated with breastfeeding but then I figured it out by myself. I had hot flushes but I think these and the absence of bleeding were my only symptoms.
The doctor asked me if I wanted to go on HRT but at the time they were saying lots of bad things about it making cancer more likely so I said no. I was very good at controlling the hot flushes myself. I would just sit calmly and wait for them to go – it’s difficult to describe but I didn’t react to them except to be calm and wait for them to pass, and that seemed to work.
I now know that I should have had 10 years of HRT to give my body the 10 years of hormones it was lacking because of my menopause. It’s real shame as I now have osteopenia [a loss of bone density that can lead to osteoporosis]. I think the doctors suggested that perhaps my bones would be stronger if I’d had those 10 years of treatment. I started ‘bone crunching’ exercises – a lot of walking and tennis – after it was diagnosed four years ago and that has reversed the trend in my bones, which is brilliant. I also took calcium and vitamin D.
My biggest concern, though, is that my daughter’s childbearing years would be affected. That is 100 per cent my biggest concern, that and the possibility my bones and brain have missed out on those years of hormones. I am now incredibly forgetful. I used to be great at quizzes but when I watch The Chase now there is so much I’ve forgotten.
My spelling used to be spot on but I now struggle much more. My mental arithmetic used to be great from time working in a pub in the old ‘pay by cash’ days, but it’s much poorer now. My friends who didn’t have their menopause early say their memories aren’t so good, though, so I don’t know if there’s a link or not.
Although I have two children my husband is from a family of six and he would have liked a third. That wasn’t to be. People who talk about having three children sometimes say ‘it’s like having a little gang’ and I don’t have that but I can’t complain because I’ve got two lovely kids.
Are there any benefits to an earlier menopause? I guess because my periods were light it didn’t make much difference in that regard. If women have terrible period pains I guess it could be a relief for them. When my friends now talk to me about going through the menopause I am truly astonished because it feels like mine was in the dark ages.
‘I’m aware that because I have children it puts me in a very different position from someone who has been unable to have kids as a result of their menopause and that is a huge loss for them. Certainly, in hindsight, I think my son has really benefited from me having more time for him than he would have had if there had been a third – my daughter too in some ways – so there are ‘swings and roundabouts’ to having more kids.
Jo Behari, 39, DIY Professional and Writer
I was 37 when I started the menopause [Jo had premature ovarian failure] – nice, huh. I came off the pill as it wasn’t working for me and swiftly got hot flushes and night sweats. The first sign was I started sweating at the gym when I worked out – I never sweat, not even in Bikram yoga! I also had the craziest rages and emotions, one second crying uncontrollably and the next flying into fits of rage over nothing.
Because I’m a carrier for a genetic condition, and I’d learned a few years ago that an earlier menopause was a common factor in female carriers, I figured it out quickly so as soon as the symptoms started I had a blood test, which confirmed my oestrogen production was pretty much non-existent.
I went on HRT because I was advised by my doctor that so long without oestrogen would be far worse than any side effects of HRT. I was concerned about osteoporosis and heart disease but I’m still not 100 per cent comfortable with being on HRT for so long so I’m currently investigating BHRT [bio-identical – or natural – hormone replacement therapy] as an alternative.
Thankfully, I’d had both my children; however, with my second who was born when I was 36, so not long before my menopause was confirmed. I really struggled to breastfeed so I do wonder if my hormones were already starting to get affected.
I was actually slightly excited by the prospect of no longer having to fork out on sanitary products but it turns out with the HRT I’m on I still get an induced bleed to prevent endometriosis, so there really is no major benefit unless you count my search inputs when I was researching Google, which thinks I’m in my mid-50s so has been targeting me with ads for cheaper car insurance!
One of the things I found hardest was going through it alone; no one really talks about it and most of my friends couldn’t relate to me. It was a lonely time but when they go through it I’ll be 15 years or so into it. There are a number of Facebook groups and blogs but I found it easier to talk to another friend and some older friends I knew who were going – or had been going – through it.
‘I do think menopause is becoming a subject that people are more willing to discuss, though, which is good. After all, we are among a very select group of mammals that actually go through menopause so it should be honoured in a way.’
Lisa Bain, 44, Global HR Director
When I was 35, I had an early miscarriage. I didn’t know I was pregnant but that’s when I realised how irregular my periods were so the doctor referred me for blood tests and scans and it turns out my ovaries are incredibly small and the hormone results were ‘catastrophic’.
I was diagnosed with the early menopause after that but my hormone results were so bad it probably started six years previously when I was diagnosed with Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS). Back then I had irregular periods but I didn’t notice because I was too busy enjoying myself.
I was told there was absolutely no chance of falling pregnant or, if I did, carrying full-term. I was married by this point and planning a family and I was, like, what? I just couldn’t believe it, couldn’t take it in. All that time trying not to get pregnant to be told you can’t. My husband and I were devastated and I thought he might leave but he said, ‘I‘m not going anywhere’. I always wanted to be a mum so to have that taken away was very hard to get my head around. The health side of things didn’t bother me so much; it was the infertility.
So I had acupuncture for three months and the acupuncturist focused on my pelvic region. When I went back for blood tests I was told they were almost normal. The doctor said it could be hormone fluctuations associated with the menopause but within five months I got pregnant naturally. I didn’t realise at first – we’d actually gone to Thailand to start the adoption process and a masseuse noticed I was pregnant but I didn’t believe her – and so I carried on drinking. When I got home I started to feel different but still didn’t believe it. Then I went for scan at 11 weeks and I was pregnant and everything was normal. I was monitored very closely because of the MDS and went on to have a healthy baby.
After stopping breastfeeding the menopausal symptoms kicked in with a vengeance. I’ve now been going through them for 10 years – I’ve been on HRT for six years in various forms but it took 2-3 years to get the right combination. HRT needs to be regularly re-evaluated and I think my current dose needs adjusting again.
My main symptoms are that I go bright red, with sweat pouring down my face. When you sweat with the menopause you’re literally drenched – it’s like being cooked from the inside, like being microwaved. If I’m in a meeting I’m not afraid to say what’s happening and I’ll leave to cool down in the loo; I think it’s better to be up front. Some days I won’t have any symptoms; other days I’ll get three to four hot flashes a day lasting between 1-6 minutes. They’re worse now than they’ve ever been but I’m hoping that’s a sign that things are coming to an end.
The night sweats are more of hindrance because they impact on sleep. I find that chocolate makes these worse – it could be the caffeine or sugar. Because of these and because I have fine hair I need to wash my hair every day – it sounds stupid but it’s an extra thing to have to fit in on top of doing a busy job and having child to look after. My advice is grow your hair long so you can tie it back. And if you’re using testosterone gel it can make you hairy so invest in a facial hair remover!
I’d also recommend being open about it – I’m the only one in my friendship group going through it but it helps to talk about it – and regular exercise is a massive benefit because of the natural endorphins it releases, which help with mood swings.
Another thing – don’t accept the first thing the doctor tells you; know your own body. If the HRT you’re on isn’t working go back and ask for the dose to be changed.
As you go through it your thoughts and fears change such as, ‘Will I keep my husband as I’m such a pain?’ It’s like PMS x100 but at least with PMT you know when it’s coming. I feel the symptoms of the menopause all the time and now that I’m getting older I worry about thinning skin and shifting weight – I exercise as a way to counteract these things and it makes me feel better about myself but I lost my waist in my 30s, not my 50s, and there’s not a thing I can do about it. Sometimes I feel resentful that I have the body of an older person – I know it sounds vain but it’s part of who you are – and I’m exhausted from not sleeping. It’s not much fun so the more you talk about it the better.’