Surgical menopause. Two words to describe an event which occurs following the removal of both ovaries before the age of 45 or natural menopause. It’s estimated around 4000 women a year will undergo surgery that will put them into immediate menopause.
“In the aftermath of my surgery, I was numb and bewildered, I felt alone and lost”
Some women liken surgical menopause to falling off a cliff. Some describe it as suddenly having their power supplies switched off, with no access to a back-up generator. I went through surgical menopause at the age of 41. Not only did my oestrogen levels plummet, my mental and physical health fell off a cliff too. And yet I had no awareness for the first 3 years after surgery that the seemingly random issues were menopause related. Gingivitis, seborrheic dermatitis, anxiety, panic attacks, nausea, one urinary tract infection after another, hair loss, itchy skin, depression, suicidal ideation, and on and on.
“I was in no way prepared for life after surgery”
Menopause though, was not on my radar screen. I look back now with astonishment. How on earth did I miss what now seems so very obvious? Primarily due to a lack of awareness. I thought menopause would most probably involve hot flushes and/or night sweats. Neither of which I had in the first few years after surgery to remove my uterus and ovaries. Beyond those two issues though, I didn’t have a clue. And I’m far from alone in my experience. I spent more time planning a days’ climbing in the mountains than I did on preparing myself for life as a post-menopausal woman.
In the aftermath of my surgical menopause, I walked away from my career of 20 years, and I almost walked away from my life. Now, I’m incredibly passionate about raising awareness of the entire range of symptoms and issues that can arise after menopause as well as in the years leading up to menopause. With hindsight I now recognise I’d been navigating the murky waters of perimenopause well before having my ovaries removed. Yet, once again, I had no clue.
What can help if a surgical menopause is on the cards for you?
- Find out as much as you possibly can before your surgery. There are some superb websites, not least www.thesurmenoconnection.com and more recently, www.surgicalmenopause.co.uk. I appreciate it can be an annoying cliché but forewarned is indeed forearmed. If you are offered surgery that will put you into menopause, make sure it’s an informed choice. If your healthcare provider doesn’t have the time to go through the alternative options and likely outcomes, then don’t be afraid to step away for a while to allow yourself the time and space to decide. If you find advocating for yourself hard (I do), then why not take an appointment buddy with you, and go armed with a notepad and pen. It’s amazing how much we forget when we’re feeling stressed or anxious.
- Prepare those around you, make sure they know you’ll likely be emotionally fragile and not firing on all cylinders for a fair while after surgery. It’s also helpful to make preparations around the house. The last thing you want to do is to trip up and injure yourself during the first few days back at home.
“Healing is not necessarily a linear process. Often after a few good days, I’d be floored by crushing fatigue and swelly-belly”
- Once recovered from the actual surgery, keep an open mind with regard to the types of medications, treatments and activities you’re prepared to try. Some of us swear by HRT, other can’t take it or choose not to. It’s an individual choice. Keep checking in with yourself as the weeks and months after surgery tick by. What works for you at one stage may no longer be appropriate or effective 12 months down the line. Vigilance is key. Make moving fun. Perhaps running is not your thing. Why not try skipping or hoola hooping? Maybe yoga is not for you, so perhaps try Qigong? What did you like doing as a child? Get active and try to stay active. Not only will it help in the fight against osteoporosis and heart disease, it’s great for your mental and emotional wellbeing.
“I use cold water bathing as a means to boost my mood, and mitigate hot flushes”
- Make time for yourself. Meditate or use the time for self-reflection and record your thoughts in a journal. Writing can be an incredibly powerful tool. Use the acute post-operative downtime to carry out a ‘life-audit’. Ask yourself what am I doing in my life that makes me happy? What sort of relationship do I have with myself and with others? Do I need to nurture, renegotiate or in some instances, step away entirely from certain relationships? One of my biggest tasks was to develop healthy boundaries. I was a perfectionist and serial people-pleaser, both of which left me exhausted and resentful. Hurt people hurt people. Be kind to yourself, develop a self-compassion practice. And I’m the last person I ever expected to be writing those words, let alone living the sentiment behind them. But, self-compassion is now one of my corner stones.
“My surgical menopause taught me the values of friendships”
- Find a community and stay connected. It can become all too easy to isolate and withdraw, especially if anxiety and/or depression are part of your milieu of menopause symptoms. With so much of our lives being conducted online in the virtual space, if you have access to the internet, reach out, find a virtual book club, or an online Scrabble club. If you want to track your recovery with others going through similar experiences as yourself, why not check out www.hystersisters.com. Above all though, know that you are not alone, and that there are others out there who will know and will be able to empathise with exactly what you are experiencing.
Helen Kemp works as an independent consultant, advisor and mentor. She recently published ‘Surgical Menopause – Not Your Typical Menopause’ which she describes as the book she wish had been around at the time of her surgical menopause. Helen describes herself as a gentle, compassionate encourager, and quiet disruptor. Helen is dyslexic and autistic, both of which make her life exciting and perplexing in equal measure. She likes LEGO, Chinook helicopters, and kind, authentic people.
Connect with Helen on Twitter: @SurMenoNYTM or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org