Guest Blog | Life After Cancer

Written by Eloise Phelps | October 2020
The below poster has been designed by Eloise.

Early menopause wasn’t a focus of my cancer after-care. But recovery, recuperation, and adjustment of life after cancer created a new me that I’ve struggled to adjust to.

These days, I tire so easily after small amounts of exercise. I’ve also been bouncing from HRT to HRT, with varying success, which feels like being on an extremely un-fun, emotional roller coaster.
The adjustments that came with this transition, the hormonal imbalances, the badgering of consultants and GPs, the focus on long term side effects of radiotherapy, and the idea that HRT can be prescribed as a one size fits all, regardless of age or circumstance, all bear the marks of a medical system focused on male bodies and male interests, despite the fairly female dominated environment. That testosterone is prescribed off label based primarily on libido is an indication of this.

I’ve tried to explain my symptoms in terms of menopause, but because I’m on HRT, and because I had radiotherapy, it can be hard to get my symptoms attributed to menopause. It sometimes feels like my self-awareness is in question. I’ve been at the centre of various invasive treatments that have no-doubt really changed my body - so I can see why people might want attribute these symptoms to the aftermath of cancer. But this can be frustrating when you know it’s menopause related.

Thankfully, there are wonderful menopause specialists able to help shift gears on a woman’s quality of life so that menopause symptoms can be better managed. An example of that would be my current GP, whose recent prescription for Clonidine, a ‘marmite’ — you either love it or hate it — remedy for hot sweats was magic. However, life after treatment can be a jolt when you come to realise that your mind and body are somehow altered. For those who haven’t gone through the menopause, who may have learnt about the menopause indirectly, hot flushes are the most recognisable complaints. I was prepared for this, and not much inclined to wonder whether medically induced menopause would lead to a gradual change or a sudden thump. But, like cancer, early menopause is a process of transitioning, understanding that there are several changes going on in my body that are affected by shaky HRT supply chains, and public opinion.

I think part of the problem is clear: that talking about the menopause, even among age-appropriate women, is a laughing matter. Honestly, it is a laughing matter — I now sleep on the floor on a glorified dog — or ‘menopause’ — mat, recommended to me by my GP. But it’s one thing making light of a situation, another thing entirely is to have this humour negate any attempts at public awareness. On TV, on Twitter, in films, the menopause is often accompanied by a joke about being ‘past it’. Women undermine themselves by selling cutesy and diminutive badges on Etsy — “Out of Oestrogen: Approach at Your Own Risk” one badge declares. This sort of self-deprecating stance erodes the realities that women experience — that public health research finds a lack of knowledge to be the cause of many poor experiences related to menopause, and that these concerns have persisted over the ages. The argument against our current way of educating women about the menopause is that the same concerns and worries exist for each approaching generation of women going through the same, inevitable health transition.

This is the motivating factor behind writing this blog, to not be ashamed of this transition, to be open about my own lack of knowledge about the menopause, and to start a conversation. If I’m honest, before I went through this transition, I would have struggled to let you what perimenopause, menopause, and post-menopause entailed. I wouldn’t have known anything about how significant the HRT shortages are. I wouldn’t have been able to tell you the average number of years women struggled with these symptoms……7 years!

I think that really says something about the need for better menopause awareness.