For some women menopause turns out to be a double whammy. Not only do they experience the symptoms of menopause, which are exhausting, mysterious and often not well treated, but also the period when the menopause begins to affect them is also the time frame in which certain cancers are most likely to be diagnosed, leading to a more complicated menopausal experience. The big three for most women are breast, ovarian and cervical cancer.
Breast cancer and menopause
Treatments for breast cancer have moved on substantially since the days when radical surgery and massive chemotherapy were the only option. However, all breast cancer treatments are likely to either cause, or impact evidence of menopause – for example chemotherapy, endocrine therapy and ovarian suppression can cause symptoms that mimic or alter menopause symptoms. This can be difficult to cope with and often affects a woman’s daily experience of life. Where women are pre-menopausal, some of these treatments can cause symptoms similar to menopause and some may even cause an earlier than expected menopause.
Hormone replacement therapy treatment (HRT) isn’t recommended for women with breast cancer which means that if you’re taking HRT and then receive a breast cancer diagnoses it may be recommended that you come off HRT which can cause your symptoms to return.
For some women who’ve been through the menopause, having treatment can actually ‘reactivate’ their symptoms, making them feel as if they are experiencing menopause all over again.
Ovarian cancer and menopause
Many cancers have been called ‘the silent killer’ but ovarian cancer is perhaps better described as ‘the confusing killer’. This is because symptoms vary according to the age of the woman and can easily be attributed to other causes. The early stages of ovarian cancer can appear as
bloating, pelvic or abdominal pain, problems with eating or feeling full very rapidly and needing to urinate urgently or with increasing frequency. Other symptoms reported by women are tiredness and indigestion, back pain, pain during intercourse, constipation and irregular menstruation. And of course all these symptoms can also be attributed to menopause or to a number of other issues! If you develop these symptoms or a combination of them, and they happen frequently (for example ten times or more in a single month).
In addition there is a rare form of ovarian cancer – Granulosa Cell Tumour – which causes different symptoms in women of different ages.
- Post menopausal women experience: abnormal uterine bleeding, breast tenderness, unusual vaginal secretions and/or symptoms related to increased testosterone such as facial hair growth.
- For premenopausal women the symptoms are: increased abdominal girth and an abdominal mass that continues to enlarge along with irregular periods
- Girls who have not entered puberty but who have Granulosa Cell Tumour may experience an early puberty which has strong male characteristics such as facial hair development related to higher testosterone levels.
Surgery is the usual treatment for ovarian cancer and in premenopausal women this can mean the removal of ovaries and fallopian tubes and/or the womb, which can also lead to menopause.
Cervical cancer and menopause
Cervical cancer is another cancer with less than obvious symptoms, so it is mainly diagnosed by screening. Symptoms include unusual bleeding (especially any bleeding after the menopause), pain or discomfort during sex, an unusual vaginal discharge and pain in the lower back or pelvis. Treatment for early cervical cancer usually involves surgery to excise the cervix and some or all of the womb, often followed by radiotherapy. More advanced cervical cancer requires radiotherapy, often chemotherapy and sometimes surgery. All these treatments may impact menopause or bring it on earlier than would naturally happen.
While all this may sound frightening, the good news about all these forms of cancer is that they are often eminently treatable if they are caught in time and treated effectively. The complicating factor that they interact with and influence the menopause is something that many women experience as a frustrating and isolating difficulty that they often feel they must deal with alone.
If this is you, please leave us a comment and share your experiences, tell us how it’s been for you or get in touch if you’d like your story to be featured on Hot Flush Club.