What’s It Like To Be 30 In Menopause
In honour of Infertility Awareness Week, Rethink is sharing stories of young women who are impacted by infertility because of a cancer diagnosis. Infertility is just one of the unique challenges that can come with being a young woman with cancer. From adoption to surrogacy to pausing life-changing treatment, read on for the ways in which some women cope with their infertility.
When I was in my 20s, I thought menopause was no big deal. Every woman would eventually go through it. And besides, it didn’t look that bad for my mom. It was a thought so far into my future, until it was my reality at 28 years old (and boy, was I so wrong about what I thought.)
I was diagnosed at 27 years old with triple positive breast cancer (meaning the cancer fed off my hormones). In order to reduce my risk of recurrence, I am on hormone therapy for 10 years. I take a pill, Tamoxifen, every night and an injection, Zoladex, every 28 days. Tamoxifen blocks hormone receptors, preventing hormones from binding to them and Zoladex shuts down my ovaries (hello, menopause).
With these therapies comes a lot of side effects – fatigue, joint pain, vaginal dryness, hot flashes (and yes, I am having one right now), mood swings, just to name a few. I feel like I’m a 30-year-old trapped in an 80-year old’s body. If I’m not in bed by 10pm every night, I start to get anxious about how tired I will feel the next day. Every time I stand, I can’t stand tall immediately and have to slowly wake up every joint because they are so stiff. Luckily, my hot flashes have reduced in intensity after three years, but I still get one about once an hour. I make sure to layer – even in the winter I’m wearing a tank top underneath a sweater. Hot flashes feel like my whole body is on fire for about a minute, then it just goes away. Well, actually, then I get really cold from the sweat, so I have to put back on my sweater until I get hot again which continues the hot flash cycle. I always laugh to myself when someone decades older than me looks so confused when they complain about their hot flashes and I chime in about mine.
But one of the hardest side effects is infertility. While my friends are starting and raising young families, I’m essentially on pause. It’s an impossible choice: choosing between potentially lifesaving treatment and growing our family. If all goes well, I should get my period and fertility back once I’m finished treatment, but my ovaries and eggs could be damaged, so I’ll have to wait and see. Luckily, we have embryos in a freezer downtown Toronto so even if things are damaged, we have a back up plan.
I have gone through so many different stages of whether or not to have children. Before cancer, I couldn’t wait to get pregnant. I come from a big family and I wanted to graduate from law school, get called to the Bar, work for a year and then start trying to get pregnant. Obviously, that’s not how life worked out for me. Instead, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and my Medical Oncologist told me to wait at least five years of hormone therapy before even starting to think about starting a family. Initially, I was okay with that because the thought of having a recurrence with a baby was too hard for me to comprehend, so it was best for me to not even go there. I have a great life with my husband going to concerts, exercising whenever we want, vacationing and best of all, sleeping through the night (except for those annoying night sweats). But then, three years have gone by just like that, since my last active cancer treatment and starting hormone therapy. Maybe it’s time to really start living my life and stop making decisions based on fear of cancer?
So, at my last six-month check-up I asked my Medical Oncologist if I could take a pause on the hormone therapy to have a baby. I still don’t completely understand his answer but due to my high risk of recurrence, he would like me to wait an additional seven years from now for me to finish the hormone therapy treatment. He said, “You’ll still be under 40,” as if that was some consolation prize. Yes, I’ll be under 40 (barely) but cancer took away another decision that I should be able to make myself. I was also told some scary statistics at this appointment that made me immediately break down in the doctor’s office. My logical brain is telling me “Don’t even think about statistics!” but my Medical Oncologist is also logical – shouldn’t I listen to him when he is trying to tell me something?
For now, I am back to being unsure about having my own kids. I love being an aunt to 10 amazing kids. Just thinking about them puts a smile on my face. They are the next best thing to having my own kids and maybe that’s enough? In my soul, I know it isn’t enough for me or for my husband but right now it just has to be. Emily Piercell
Read more stories about infertility and cancer here.
Emily Piercell is the Community and Programs Specialist at Rethink Breast Cancer, where she helps plan and execute Rethink’s support programs, manages the Give-A-Care line and regularly contributes to the Rethink blog. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015, Emily was introduced to Rethink through the summer retreat, Stretch Heal Grow, where she fell in love with the organization.