My name is Elizabeth and I’m 64 years old. My menopause started when I was 43, brought on by the chemotherapy treatment I underwent for breast cancer; I would say by the time I was 44 my menopause had ended. Certainly one good side effect of the chemotherapy was that it brought a halt my periods very quickly, and I think in general it accelerated the course of my menopause. There are so many women who suffer for such a long time with menopause that I’d say I was pretty lucky on that score.
I’m not certain I was aware of my mother going through her own menopause. When I was growing up, the children in our house were treated on a to-be-seen-and-not-heard basis, and the adults around us were very private and reserved about their personal matters. It was quite hard for me to know what was going on with my parents, but I never really focused on them from that perspective to begin with.
I’m also fairly reserved about my personal life, and don’t tend to discuss things much with other people, so I’m not sure I talked to any of my friends about going through menopause during the time I did, though I do recall sharing my stories about night sweats and waking up totally drenched in the middle of the night. My husband would be sleeping and I’d get up from a horrible sweat episode and remake what’s called an occupied bed. I’m a nurse, and that’s something we’re trained to do with a patient in the bed. I’d pull the wet sheets off and then tuck a new sheet under and roll him over from one side to the next as I went along remaking the bed, and he’d never even wake up!
I graduated from nursing school in 1972. I did regular nursing after I graduated, and then became a school nurse for sixteen years so my schedule would be the same as my three children. After that, I had a stint subcontracting as a pharmaceuticals representative; then I worked in customer relations at Memorial Sloan Kettering for two years, and later on as a nurse for Geico Insurance, and now Liberty Mutual.
I remember being emotionally labile during menopause: it accentuated my moods and influenced my self-esteem in ways that were problematic. Once I was through with it, the biggest issue I had was difficulty with sex—physiologically there just wasn’t the kind of flow there used to be, and that’s a real difference in the before-and-after of it. There are products available to relieve dryness and other symptoms, but because they’re hormone-based if you’ve had breast cancer it’s not advisable to get involved with them; other than using over-the-counter lubricants, someone with my situation doesn’t have many real alternatives to make that any better.
I was raised as a Catholic, but later, when I was faced with going through breast cancer, my spiritual path led me to accept the Lord as my savior. If you believe in Christ you believe in Christ, whether you’re a Catholic or a Lutheran or a Methodist, so I don’t put any kind of a label to my faith other than it being Christian. In my view, denominations are simply social labels to describe different manifestations of the same phenomenon, which is a shared belief in the Savior.
We have to take life as it comes at us, and some things are good and some are not so good. I think it’s best not to focus too hard on the negative experiences we have, not to dwell on them. I remember when I was diagnosed, the physician made me feel as if I had one foot in the grave. I was by myself at the time, because when I went in I’d figured that everything was going to be fine; but not only did I find out that I had cancer, the doctor briefly left the examining room—after giving me the option of a lumpectomy or a mastectomy—then came back in and told me he’d looked at my results again and changed his mind, and now, in his opinion, I needed a mastectomy because the type of malignancy I had was aggressive. And I thought shit, I’m actually going to die here! I was incredibly upset, so they called my husband and he came down, and then they had me consult with a plastic surgeon who happened to be in their office to see another patient. At this point I hadn’t even adjusted to the fact that my biopsy was positive, so as you can imagine I was miserable and very, very upset. Then, a nurse in the office gave me the names of several of their other patients so I could speak to someone who’d been through the same experience; one of them happened to be a parent of a child in the school where I worked. So I called her, and her advice I will never forget. She told me that she had ultimate faith in our doctor—as did I, because I knew his reputation and the positive outcomes of many of his patients—but, despite that, I needed to get a second opinion, and if the opinions didn’t agree to get a third. Then she said to me: you have to take charge of this, the cancer can’t take charge of you, and as soon as I heard that it was as if a light bulb switched on in my head. Well, I got off the phone with her, washed the tears off my face, and I never cried about it again. I got two other opinions, which were both to have a lumpectomy not a mastectomy, because even though it was an aggressive form and there was presence in two nodes, the tumor was the size of the tip of my pinkie, and both of these new doctors were all about preserving breast tissue. I was fine for about fourteen years and then it recurred in the same exact spot, which is really bizarre, and I had a mastectomy at that time; but that didn’t bother me as much as it would have bothered me to go through that when I was 43. I didn’t cry or get upset when I was re-diagnosed, and that all boiled down to taking charge of something instead of it taking charge of you.
All of that wasn’t necessarily about menopause, but my response to having cancer could easily apply as advice to women who are having a difficult time in menopause. Stop, take a deep breath, and decide that you’re not going to let this drive you crazy. Make the decision to be in charge of your own destiny.