My Story: the double whammy of breast cancer and menopause
I was diagnosed with breast cancer in March 2012. It was a huge shock as I was 39 and hadn’t checked my breasts for a while. I found two lumps, one pea-sized and one brazil nut-sized. Things then became a horrid blur of appointments, fears, tears and trying to manage being a mum to two young children.
My tumours were both slightly different – one was triple negative and the other was low level estrogen receptor positive. They were Grade 3, so fairly aggressive, and I had to undergo full mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation. On my 40th birthday, I received my full diagnosis, that they hadn’t discovered any cancer in my lymph nodes. It offered some relief, but I had a long, rocky road ahead.
The chemotherapy was gruelling and at times I thought I wouldn’t get through it. The regime almost immediately stopped my periods, and the now familiar menopausal symptoms ravaged me. At the time, I thought it was just cancer-induced anxiety, but long after the chemo finished, I continued to suffer both mentally and physically. The problem was, none of my friends were experiencing the menopause, and many of my symptoms could be explained away as unwelcome hangovers from cancer treatment. Before having cancer, I’d barely heard about the menopause, only the negative scare stories about HRT.
I was a functioning wreck. By that I mean I kept going, kept working, being a mum, a wife, daughter and friend, but inside I was a hollow, self-loathing, and anxious version of myself. I’ve always been an outgoing, sociable and spontaneous ‘lover of life’ but I didn’t recognise myself anymore.
The hardest part was not feeling like a good enough mum; the double-whammy of breast cancer and menopause. My poor family have suffered along with me, and I wish I could go back and tell myself to start taking HRT a lot earlier.
Apart from the mental impact of having an induced menopause, I came to ‘normalise’ the physical problems. Now I am on HRT, I realise how much they were linked to abnormally low estrogen and testosterone levels. I ached in my joints, felt cold and often exhausted, experienced a strange ringing in my ears, I had dry eyes, throat and mouth problems, IBS – the list goes on!
For a couple of years, I looked for help and relief from ‘natural’ sources, because I believed (and was led to believe) that HRT was a no-no for someone like me who’d had breast cancer. Acupuncture, massage, herbal remedies, counselling – these all helped temporarily but couldn’t offer any lasting relief. I tried different foods and supplements – all costing me time, money and more frustration.
During this time, I gradually became more aware of the positive aspects of HRT, even for someone like me. HRT began to pop up in articles, podcasts and other media as a treatment that had suffered an unfair representation in the media. I did some hunting online, and through following Liz Earle on Instagram, I discovered the work of Dr Louise Newson. Her words and advice felt like a revelation and offered me much-needed hope. However, because my anxiety levels were so high, it took many more months of suffering, talking to doctors and reading around the topic to take the plunge and book an appointment.
Without a doubt, doing this became one of the most important decisions of my life.
Since seeing Dr Rebecca Lewis at the clinic and online, I’ve found a regime that suits me well: estrogen gel, progesterone via the Mirena coil, and testosterone cream. I’d say that testosterone has been particularly impactful on my mental health, libido (yes, you still need that!) and general lust for life. The numerous physical effects of the menopause, that I mentioned earlier, all disappeared after a few months of being on HRT.
I feel that HRT has given me back what my cancer treatment took away.
I probably would be going through the menopause soon anyway, as I’m 48 now, but at least I can thrive in my midlife and don’t have to struggle unnecessarily with treatable symptoms.
Nine years ago, I thought my life was over, but I know now that life is here for the living.
If you’d like to hear more about Caroline’s story, you can listen to her in conversation with Dr Newson on this podcast episode.