I was 27 years old when I was told I had cervical cancer. It was May 2019 and I’d just moved to Australia with my then-boyfriend. I’d had pelvic pain for a few months, but I thought it was just a side effect of my cystic fibrosis (a genetic condition I was diagnosed with aged nine, in which thick mucus can clog the lungs and digestive system) and all the meds I have to take for it.
But then the symptoms worsened: bleeding, discharge, pain during sex – and my cystic fibrosis became unbearable, with chest infections and difficulty breathing. My gynaecologist in Australia took a biopsy, but I was so sick I had to fly home to Ireland before the results came back. A week later, I read the email: ‘I’m sorry to tell you that the cells are cancerous.’ My heart shattered. I screamed into a cushion and sobbed until I almost threw up.
Cancer treatment meant I faced another hurdle: menopause. After freezing my eggs via IVF, I had a radical hysterectomy (leaving just my ovaries) in August, followed by pelvic radiotherapy, which put me into a medically induced menopause. At the time, I was just focused on the cancer; it wasn’t until a couple of months later that the side effects hit me like a ton of bricks. And because my cancer was hormone-triggered, I can’t have HRT.
The hot flushes were mild, initially, but soon I was drenched in sweat, daily. I had to shield because of the pandemic, so one upside was I didn’t have to go out and feel self-conscious! However, the effect on my sleep and mental health blindsided me.
I became very depressed and anxious, which I was totally unprepared for. I had no idea that mood swings were a symptom. In fact, menopause was completely alien to me – it wasn’t discussed in sex-ed at school, and, of course, none of my friends were talking about it. The word ‘menopause’ just made me think of ‘hot flushes’, ‘no more periods’, and the way it’s ‘comically’ portrayed in movies and on TV.
That’s when I turned to social media. Through Instagram accounts, such as @megsmenopause and @emma.bardwell, I found other women going through the same thing. They recommended things like a cooling pillow and a lighter-tog duvet to help me sleep. But crucially, this new online community made me realise that I wasn’t alone.
I’ve found immense comfort in holistic therapies, such as reflexology, mindfulness and meditation. I read the books and listened to the podcasts of Eckhart Tolle, Oprah and Jay Shetty, and used the Calm app as a sleep and meditation aid. Practising these methods improved all of my symptoms – my sleep pattern, my mood, even my heart palpitations from the hot flushes. In fact, it helped so much that I’m now studying to become a reflexologist.
Now, my hot flushes are less frequent and come in phases. But I do get sporadic incontinence and bowel blockages (basically, severe constipation for which I use bowel-cleansing agents), plus vaginal dryness and tightness, which can affect my sex life. But my new partner is very supportive and understanding, and I wouldn’t be without my water-based lubes and vaginal moisturisers. I also use silicone vaginal dilators three times a week, which help prevent vaginal stenosis (when the vagina becomes narrower or shorter due to radiation therapy).
Menopause has shown me how strong I am and what my body is capable of. Sure, my experience is rare – menopause under the age of 40 affects 1% of the UK population – but I’m damn proud of my body for everything it has had to go through at a young age! As for my cancer? It’s too early to say I’m ‘cancer-free’. Recurrence is high within the first two years, but it’s been a year now since treatment and my scans have thankfully been all clear.
I now share my experiences about premature menopause on my blog (aoifepr.com) and Instagram (@aoife.p.r). And, if there’s one thing all this has taught me, it’s that women know how to bounce back – we’re bloody incredible, resilient and brave!
Whatever stage you’re at in menopause, there’s no secret – or shame – that incontinence might become a sporadic or regular visitor. In fact, according to incontinence.co.uk, more people suffer with bladder problems than with asthma, diabetes or epilepsy! Therefore, confidence to live your life without any accidents is key – and that’s where TENA Discreet Maxi Pads (6-pack) come in. You don’t need to worry about odour (thanks to the unique micro-fresh pearls), and leaks/moisture will be a thing of the past, too, because the pads contain super-absorbent InstaDRY materials. Which means you can say ‘yes’ to that spontaneous walk or picnic in the park (restrictions permitting) without panicking about the proximity of the nearest loo. And we all know that kind of freedom is priceless!