Menopause is the time in every woman’s life when she stops having menstrual periods. This usually happens around age 50. Menopause is official when a woman hasn’t had a period in 12 months. As the time of menopause nears, a woman’s body begins to make less of the hormones estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. The decline of these hormones is responsible for the changes and symptoms that occur. Some of the more common symptoms of menopause are fatigue, weight gain, hot flashes, insomnia, decreased sexual drive, vaginal dryness, and bone loss.
Certain health conditions, and medications including chemotherapy can induce early menopause. Women over the age of 45 are very likely to enter menopause when they start chemotherapy. Younger women may have temporary menopause after starting chemotherapy, but are likely to resume their periods after chemotherapy is completed.
Symptoms of Menopause
Menopause isn’t the same for everyone. Some women have symptoms that are very bothersome, while others go through menopause without noticing much change at all. The hormonal changes of menopause can cause several significant symptoms:
Hot flashes. Hot flashes are the most common symptom of menopause: About 75 percent of menopausal women in the U.S. will have them. A hot flash is a sudden feeling of heat in the upper body and face. You may also have cold shivers and sweating. Hot flashes can be mild or strong enough to wake you while you sleep. They usually last from several seconds to minutes. Hot flashes are generally temporary, but can last anywhere from one to several years.
Changes in the vagina and urinary tract. The decrease of the body’s estrogen causes changes in the vagina. It may be drier, which can cause pain during sexual intercourse. The urinary tract can also become dry or irritated. This causes some women to urinate more often or have a hard time with bladder control.
Lower sex drive. Some women have less interest in sex around menopause. The ability to have an orgasm may also change.
Emotional changes. You may feel more moody, irritable, and anxious due to the changes in hormones. Sleep disturbances are also common.
Bone loss. During your lifetime, the body constantly breaks down old bone and replaces it with new bone. But at menopause, the loss of estrogen causes the body to lose more bone than it makes. This can lead to osteoporosis, a condition in which the bones are weakened and can fracture more easily.
What You Can Do
Talk to your oncologist or nurse about the drugs prescribed for your treatment and whether they’re likely to cause early menopause. Also, talk to your provider about the possibility of menopause and chemotherapy. If you’re currently having treatment and notice any menopausal symptoms, let your oncologist know. There are medications that can help with symptoms, including hot flashes and mood changes. You can also prevent or ease some of the symptoms by following these steps:
- Prepare for hot flashes—Sleep in a cool room, dress in layers that can be removed if you get too warm, and have a cold drink of water or juice when a flash starts.
- Ease vaginal dryness— Use over-the-counter water-based lubricants, not petroleum jelly, to moisten the vagina during sexual intercourse.
- Keep your bones healthy—The best way to prevent osteoporosis is to get enough calcium and vitamin D from foods like dairy, fruits, and vegetables. Supplements are also available. Exercise regularly with activities that build strong bone such as walking, lifting weights and doing yoga. Also, quit smoking and limit alcohol intake.
While ever woman will eventually go through menopause, chemotherapy can accelerate the process. Talk to your oncologist about ways to prepare for menopause and how to ease symptoms.