World Menopause Day 2023

Charlene Stewart bravely shares her experience with the menopause.

After decades of silence and taboo, menopause conversations are hitting the mainstream – which means there’s an opportunity to cut through the myth and ensure everyone is better informed.

Telent’s Charlene Stewart, Assistant Project Manager, shares a blog about her experience and why it’s so important that menopause support continues to be addressed – both in the workplace and out.

Charlene's Story

Please note, Charlene’s story contains references to cancer.

I’m not one for really putting myself out there, but this is a subject close to my own heart and I think it’s time we try to lose the stigma around it.

My experience with the menopause started about six years ago. Following a routine appointment with a fertility specialist, I was diagnosed with what they suspected was ovarian cysts and endometriosis (where tissue similar to the lining of the womb grows in other places outside of the uterus). They found I had a 13cm ‘cyst’ on my left ovary, and two five cm and seven cm ‘cysts’ on my right ovary.

However, after further tests and a biopsy I was diagnosed with womb cancer at the age of 37. Everything went pretty fast from that point, and within two weeks I’d been taken in for an emergency hysterectomy (surgical removal of the uterus) and oophorectomy (surgical removal of the ovaries).

A post-surgery biopsy confirmed the ‘cysts’ were ovarian cancer. Having these two separate cancers at my age is considered very rare. Luckily, it was caught at an early stage. During the following six months I also had to go through chemotherapy and brachytherapy (a type of radiotherapy).

Thrown in at the deep end

At this point, I’d not even thought about Menopause or realised I would be affected by it. As I was only 37 at the time, I was quite ignorant to the subject. I’d only heard stories or experiences from older family members or colleagues and still didn’t think it would affect me until I was a lot older.

A few weeks after my surgery and first chemo, I experienced my first ‘hot flash’ although I didn’t know what it was at the time. It felt like an uncontrollable heat, and I started getting this horrible burning sensation from the tips of my toes right up to the top of my head. I was also an emotional wreck, but with what I was going through with my diagnosis I just thought it was part of the parcel.

After a few days of suffering these flushes and terrible low moods, I contacted my oncologist who informed me it was the menopause. Because of the surgeries, my body was forced into a medical menopause. This means that the body doesn’t go through it naturally over time, which happens when the ovaries gradually stop producing oestrogen, but goes into the process pretty much overnight – which is what happened to me as my body had stopped producing oestrogen following the surgery. So, to say I was thrown in at the deep end is an understatement!

It's difficult when people make assumptions

That was six years ago, and unfortunately, the symptoms still don’t seem to be easing up. Although I have most of the usual menopause symptoms such as brain fog, memory and concentration issues, weight gain, joint aches etc, the biggest challenge for me are the hot flashes.

Because of the type of cancer I had, I’m unable to take HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy) as this encourages oestrogen within my body. Unfortunately, the cancer ‘feeds’ from the oestrogen and it puts me at risk of developing it again. Sadly, this means there is no way of treating these hot flashes, I just have to get on with it.

It can be difficult when people make assumptions and dismiss the fact that I’m going through the menopause – even older women who sometimes say, “you’re too young for that yet” or “oh, you’ll know all about it when you really start getting hot flushes". They don’t know my story, and I certainly don’t feel I should have to explain my medical history to strangers. It can be very frustrating and upsetting at times.

We laugh at the number of hand fans on the table

At first there was very little support for me, and I didn’t know where to turn. But, as part of my cancer therapy, I’d gone to a few classes at a local Maggie’s Centre. I met a few women who were the same age as me and going through the menopause for similar reasons. We were able to support each other, and we still meet up for a coffee and a catch up every few months (and have a laugh at the number of hand fans on the table!).

I’ve also joined a few advice groups on Facebook which have been really helpful and, of course, the Menopause Community group that we’ve started within Telent.

It’s been great to be able to be open and speak to other women at work who are going through similar things. Everyone has a different story but it’s great hearing them and supporting one another with advice on everything from herbal medicines to cooling pyjamas for the night sweats!

The menopause is nothing to be embarrassed about, it’s something that all women go through in their lives. It’s also important to remember that it doesn’t just affect women but has an impact on our partners, families, and colleagues as well.

The menopause refers to the stage when the ovaries completely stop producing reproductive hormones and there are no monthly periods for twelve consecutive months. For many, this occurs around the age of 50 or 60 but it can happen earlier or later than this. As described in Charlene’s story, it can also be the result of medical treatments, including chemotherapy. Some symptoms may also be experienced before periods stop and this is often referred to as the Peri-Menopause. For more information, please head to the NHS website.

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