Breast cancer and the menopause: a double challenge

At the age of 41 I was plunged headfirst into a brutal, burning menopause.

I’d just finished five months of surgery for breast cancer and starting on hormone therapy seemed like a breeze by comparison. Back then, I used to think myself ‘lucky to be alive’ and feel grateful that my life had been preserved by the NHS.

Looking back, I see that luck had nothing to do with it. I’m entitled – just like everyone else – to a happy healthy life and although I do remain forever grateful for the care I received, it’s got nothing to do with luck.

For two years after my surgery, I went to my GP once a month for a jab into my tummy. It hurt, a lot. The injection was part of my treatment, which lasted for five years in all. There was very little information, support, or advice, other than being advised to avoid all plant-based remedies that contained oestrogen, because my particular strain of breast cancer was hormone receptive. Oestrogen was my enemy and my treatment was to banish it from my body. The result was that I was plunged into surgical menopause.

Embracing my new, post-menopausal world, I acquired a series of layered clothing which I could variously peel on and off when the glow kicked in. I’ve heard it called Tamoxifen Glow, but for me it was more like a steel furnace burning in my chest which radiated out like molten lead in just a few seconds.

I couldn’t sleep, I played the hokey cokey with my duvet, left arm in, right leg out and shake the whole thing about. Having quit my job, I went back to university to study horticulture and dodged between freezing cold greenhouses and hot classrooms. Boiler on/boiler off. Jumper on/jumper off.

I felt embarrassed. What an understatement. I was mortified, feeling isolated that I couldn’t tell anyone what was really happening to me. I hadn’t yet discovered the benefits of a menopause wing woman who could see me turning a beetroot colour and show me some love. I even joked, “If I’m lucky, I’ll get to do the menopause twice” meaning that if I was well enough to make it into my 50s, I might be able to have a natural menopause.

I almost made it, the natural part that is. I was distinctly in perimenopause age 50 when I had a recurrence of breast cancer. Same side, same treatment more or less, just the older lady version. So off I went into menopause land again. Whereas the first time it was just another life hurdle to jump, this time it made me grumpy. I mean, really grumpy, because this time I knew there was no coming back. Fertility, kaput, gone.

Worse still, given all the other things I’ve overcome with my health, it still never makes it to the top of the pile, I just put up with it, because I have to. I also rationalise that I would’ve been in natural menopause anyway, but I’m grumpy because I didn’t have a choice. I take Starflower oil and a calcium tablet each day, because old lady cancer treatment rots your bones, and by and large I just get on with it.

But I’d love to open up the conversation, reflect back and see how my experience compares to other women like me. It’s one of the many impacts of breast cancer treatment, and indeed many other medically induced menopause conditions, and I’d love to talk about it.

One of the questions I never asked when I was first diagnosed was “why me?”

It seemed futile, and still does, but there’s a better question to ask: “Is it just me?”

By asking it, we create a space where women can share and validate our experiences, and help ourselves to some retrospective and future reassurance that we are not alone, we are not the only woman who feels like this. Join me?

Sue Pringle

About Sue Pringle

I'm mother to two fabulous daughters aged 19 and 22. I'm the founder of Millie Lingerie, a new brand designing gorgeous bras for women to wear after breast cancer treatment. I've been successfully treated for breast cancer twice, and I’m grumpy about the lack of choice of lingerie for women like myself to wear, so I’m busy turning that grump into a business. I believe that lingerie is an intimate form of self expression, which all women are entitled to experience, especially after the rigours of breast cancer treatment. I’m about to hit the crowdfunding trail again, raising funds to manufacture and launch our first bra, and we plan to launch a debut collection within the next year. You can find out more at Millie Lingerie or follow us on Twitter or Facebook. I live in Nottingham where my business is based, and enjoy walking, swimming and practising yoga to keep my body and mind healthy. I'm an avid Strictly Come Dancing fan, currently lacking the right partner to cha-cha with!

  • Robin

    Thanks for sharing your experience Sue. I opted out of Tamoxifen after researching my cancer and Tamoxifen itself, all of which were eye-openers. I can’t imagine how it must have felt to have gone through all of that and STILL have a reoccurrence. I was also very grateful for my NHS treatment but it was interesting that when I questioned the necessity of the Tam the oncologist didn’t disagree with my decision. If this had happened to me at 41 I would probably have felt differently. But in my mid-fifties I suppose I would rather give myself the chance of a ‘natural’ menopause and enjoy the life I have now. It’s interesting to read about others’ experiences and feelings, isn’t it?