Shock of early ‘crash’ menopause caused by cancer treatment

Wednesday 04 October 2023

“I didn’t realise the menopause would be harder than my cancer treatment.” Alice, 41

Menopause comes as a shock for nearly a third of people who experience early onset menopause caused by cancer treatment.

New research, carried out by cancer support charity Maggie’s, shows that 30% of people diagnosed with cancer weren't aware that their treatment could cause early menopause, and many find the symptoms of menopause worse than their cancer treatment.

The survey* of people who have attended the charity’s menopause workshops also found that nearly three-quarters (73%) of those who were told were given little to no information about early onset menopause. Over half (54%) said that the information they received was just a conversation with a healthcare professional, but 78% said they would have preferred more than one form of information.

Maggie's helping visitors facing 'crash' menopause

Maggie’s has been running menopause workshops online and at some of its centres across the UK for four years after noticing that many people were talking to Maggie’s staff about how challenging they were finding the symptoms of treatment-induced, early onset menopause alongside their cancer treatment.

Carolyn Harris MP, menopause campaigner and chair of the APPG on Menopause, commented:

When I visited Maggie’s recently, I heard that so many women with cancer aren’t prepared for the life-altering effects of menopause that their treatment throws them into.

Many said that they ‘crashed’ into the menopause and weren’t sure whether the pain, flushes and mood swings were part of their treatment or something else. Most are also left to cope on their own with no option for HRT and feel like they have nowhere to turn.

This is such an important topic to raise awareness of and it's fantastic to learn that Maggie’s is offering specific support to anyone going through menopause as a result of cancer treatment.

Alice MacGillivray, 41, from London, was diagnosed with breast cancer at 35. After treatment, she had her ovarian tubes removed as a precaution because she has the BRCA1 gene, and as a result, she went through a medically induced menopause, which she says hit her harder than the cancer itself. Alice said:

The menopause for me was harder than the cancer, it was too much. I wanted to be out of my body. Because of the cancer, I’d had a mastectomy and my ovarian tubes removed but because I was a young woman, people would pass comments like ‘oh, that’s such a shame, you’re so young’. People are trying to be kind, but it does build up on you. Not having a partner or a job, or a choice to have children made me feel unmoored, but I found I could talk to the people in Maggie’s about that. They taught me that life itself is the prize – and that nothing else matters.

Even though I was over cancer, the menopause made me feel like I was broken again. I’d come into Maggie’s sweating, probably three or four times a week. I met others going through the menopause, there was a lot of perspective. I could find the funny side and laugh about it when I spoke to others too. I lived with other young girls in a busy area in a very transient flat, where everything was fast-paced and high energy, so the tranquillity and peacefulness just helped me to align and collect myself.

Liz O’Riordan, former breast cancer surgeon and breast cancer patient, commented:

As a breast cancer surgeon, I had no idea how hard the menopause was for my patients until I became a patient myself.

We aren’t given specific menopause training and often don’t hear about it from our patients, as we only have 5 minutes with them after surgery and then don’t see them again for years. That’s why it is so important that people know that they can come to Maggie’s for safe, trusted, expert advice.

Maggie’s Chief Executive Dame Laura Lee commented:

It is really shocking that so many people aren’t aware their treatment will cause early onset menopause.

We know how traumatic an experience this can be for people on top of their cancer diagnosis with people experiencing loss of fertility and a range of debilitating side-effects. It is crucial we shine a spotlight on these issues and that information is more clearly available.

Maggie’s Cambridge Centre Head, Lisa Punt, who developed the course, said:

Early onset menopause caused by cancer treatment can be incredibly difficult and more challenging than a natural menopause.

Many people don’t realise that they will experience menopause as a consequence of their treatment, perhaps because they weren’t told or didn’t take in the information as they were so focused on their cancer diagnosis.

People often describe their menopausal symptoms as being as hard to cope with as the cancer itself.

Then there is the emotional impact – these are often young people who are a long way from a natural menopause. The impact can be far-reaching impacting on long-term health, intimacy and relationships. It is a huge issue, but we can help.

Jacqui McBurnie, founder and chair of the NHS England Menopause Network said:

It’s so important that this issue is highlighted.

We know how critical it is that patients receive clear information and support around treatment side effects and to see the work Maggie’s provides to support beyond the initial treatment. Maggie’s plays a huge role in delivering this care and complementing the work of the NHS.

All of Maggie’s 24 UK cancer support centres run menopause workshops or offer similar support individually. Anyone who isn’t able to get to a Maggie's centre can also sign up to attend a workshop online or get virtual support online or via the phone from one of our professional staff.

Menopause myth-busting

1. MYTH: I’ve already had a natural menopause so cancer treatment can’t send me into another one.

FACT: Medically induced menopause can happen again at any age, even if you’ve had a natural menopause.

2. MYTH: Menopause can only happen if I've had a gynaecological or breast cancer.

FACT: Any cancer treatment can cause a medically induced menopause.

3. MYTH: Once I go into early menopause my chances of having children are gone.

FACT: Some people on select cancer treatments find their periods return once treatment has finished.

4. MYTH: My sex life has finished once I go into menopause.

FACT: There are a lot of tools and support on offer to help you get back to having a healthy sex life.

5. MYTH: I’m not allowed to take HRT for my medically induced menopause.

FACT: Some cancer treatments do allow people to take HRT to alleviate symptoms of menopause. If you are struggling, please talk to your oncologist or local Maggie’s about HRT or other support with symptoms.

For more information about the early menopause and menopausal symptoms caused by cancer, visit our menopause and cancer page.

How we can help

If you or someone you know is worried about the side effects of chemotherapy, we have expert staff in our centres available to help you. 

*97 people surveyed anonymously who took part in online and in-person workshops. Respondents potentially from across the UK.

Find out more information about our menopause stories and spokespeople here.

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