Not the sexiest word in the English language. Thickening waists. Dry skin. Brain fog. Hair in places where you don’t want hair.
Before starting chemotherapy as part of my breast cancer treatment, I had to sit through a one-on-one educational seminar on the parade of chemo’s eye-opening side effects. It sounded like one of those commercials for medicine. You know the ones – they start with images of good-looking people walking through a meadow and end with a long list of horrifying corollaries that come with the drug.
For an hour or so, in a small room next to the chemo chamber, a nurse rattled off her bleak presentation, complete with pictures, and I knew that if I paid attention to even half of it, I’d decide to opt out.
One of cancer’s best kept secrets, hidden in the fine print at the back of the book, rarely mentioned: chemo-induced menopause.
It unleashed its full force a couple weeks into my journey with those powerful injections.
My first hot flash tiptoed into my life while I was in the kitchen. I thought I was standing too close to the oven, but even after I moved, the flood of heat radiated from inside my body, coursing through me like lava from a volcano, and I couldn’t get away from it. I felt sweat drip down my back. My arms and legs went clammy with a layer of damp. No one else seemed to notice how incredibly hot the room had become. A moment later, the heat abated.
Curious, I thought. An Alice-in-Wonderland moment.
Menopause hot flashes
After a while, I became used to sudden, overwhelming, intense heat boring through me at inopportune moments. At night, I’d kick off my blankets and wait, wide awake, til the feeling subsided.
One particular hot flash is seared into my memory. On a sweltering evening, I attended a wrangler exhibition with a group of friends so we could watch rodeo-princess-wannabes compete for the crown. Entertainment options in our rural community were limited, so my family and I took a seat on the bleachers and watched the spectacle unfold.
Young beauties on horseback looked like debutants at a New York gala, but could ride like cowboys in the wild west. At terrifying speeds, they galloped through tight obstacle courses, perfect complexions and gleaming hair obscured by dust kicked up by thundering hooves. Transfixed, the audience cheered.
But under my hat, under my wig, under my sundress, under my very skin, I felt radiator-like heat begin to percolate, another hot flash. It was the first time I considered whipping off my wig in public. I wanted to dump my cold lemonade onto my fuzzy head, to rub those ice cubes on my prickly hot skin. Instead, I felt silt and rodeo smells mingle with my own sweat and told myself that it would pass. It did.
Besides hot flashes, menopause comes with phantom menstrual periods, or at least mine did. Many women have a series of tell-tale signs that their periods are imminent, signs like cramping, mood changes, fatigue. I had those signs too, continually. I’d be sure that my period was starting and then realize that I wouldn’t be having periods anymore, that my body was playing tricks on me.
I remember a marine friend telling me once about phantom pains after he lost his leg to cancer. He described the sensation eloquently, how odd it was to feel pain on a body part that no longer existed, and when I recalled his descriptions, it helped me understand and cope with my own peculiar sensations. I’m sad to say that my friend succumbed to his disease, but I wish I could tell him that the lessons he shared have been helpful in ways neither of us could have predicted.
Sometimes I wonder if my menopause experience would have been different if it hadn’t been induced by cancer’s meds, if the symptoms would have crept up on me more slowly or taken a different form. When I can’t find a word I need or forget why I opened the refrigerator, am I having a chemo moment or a menopause moment? Does it matter?
Older friends have told me their menopause came with a certain peace of mind, a sense of wisdom they lacked in earlier years. I don’t know yet if my menopause will bring me closer to those worthy states of being, but if I do acquire any wisdom, I’ll be sure to share some here.
Note: Breast Cancer News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Breast Cancer News, or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to breast cancer.