Cancer and Menopause

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What is menopause?

Menopause is the time of a woman’s life when menstruation stops. It is a process in which the ovaries produce fewer hormones, which cause menstrual periods to become irregular and eventually stop completely. Menopause naturally occurs between ages 45 and 60. However, it can also occur in women less than 45 years of age whose ovaries are surgically removed or have stopped functioning for other reasons.

In women treated for cancer, menopause may occur early and may even occur during treatment. Following treatment, many women may experience transient menopause, which means menstrual periods may stop and then start again. This is because some chemotherapy can cause damage to the ovaries. As a result, women with cancer may experience some symptoms of menopause.

What are the symptoms?

Both physical symptoms and mood changes may occur. Symptoms may last weeks, a few months, or sometimes over several years. This can be stressful as you may experience the physical and emotional impacts of cancer, treatment, and natural menopause all at the same time.

Physical symptoms may include:

  • irregular menstrual periods
  • hot flashes (also called flushes)
  • disturbed sleep patterns
  • dry skin
  • fast or irregular heartbeat
  • loss of bone density
  • weight gain
  • vaginal dryness and shrinkage of genital tissues
  • discomfort or pain during sexual intercourse
  • susceptibility to minor vaginal and urinary infections

Emotional symptoms may include:

  • anxiety
  • depression
  • tearfulness, irritability
  • less desire for sex
  • lack of concentration
  • poor memory

Your feelings may be linked to changes in hormones and other symptoms of menopause, i.e. lack of sleep, hot flashes, or stress and coping with your illness. It is important to honor these emotions and to express yourself. You are encouraged to discuss any of your symptoms with a member of our health care team.

What about treatment?

Treatment options for menopause vary and have important concern for women with cancer. The use of hormone therapy is a controversial issue for its use with all women. Hormone therapy (usually estrogen and progesterone, or estrogen alone) has been used to relieve symptoms and also prevent disease, such as heart disease and osteoporosis (bone loss). However, all women do not need to be on hormones. You should discuss the risks and benefits of hormone therapy with your doctor since your risk of further disease along with your symptoms will be considered prior to making a decision about treatment options.

You may also hear about other symptom relieving options. These may include the use of complementary therapies, such as acupuncture, homeopathy, herbs and natural foods. Again, it is important to explore these issues with your physician.

Other suggestions:

  • Talk and share feelings with a friend, family member or member of the healthcare team such as your doctor, nurse or social worker.
  • Join a support group for women who have been or are going through menopause and cancer.
  • Eat more foods that are high in calcium, such as dark green vegetables and nonfat (skim) milk, dairy products and vitamin E.
  • Get regular physical exercise, which is particularly important in trying to maintain good circulation, mobility and a sense of feeling better.
  • Wear cotton sleepwear to reduce discomfort from night sweats.
  • Use water–based vaginal lubricating cream or jelly if intercourse is painful. (This symptom is caused by low estrogen and can always be discussed with your doctor).

NOTE: Continue to use birth control until the doctor tells you it is no longer needed.