Menopause – The Change of Your Life

Most women in their forties have menopause somewhere on their radar—they’ve either started experiencing symptoms or they know they will soon. For younger women, however, menopause is often a more abstract concept looming somewhere in the distant future. Cancer can change that very quickly.

Depending on your age, the type of cancer, and your treatment regimen, cancer treatment can kick you into menopause faster than you can say “No, thank you.” It’s sort of a double whammy—cancer plus premature menopause. The transition can be abrupt, but some healthy coping strategies can make it tolerable.


Making Sense of Menopause

Menopause marks the end of the reproductive phase in women. The term menopause refers to the stage in a woman’s life when she has her last menstrual cycle. A woman is considered to have completed menopause when she has experienced one year with no menstrual bleeding.

Menopause usually does not occur overnight. The average age at which a woman experiences her final menstrual period is 51; however, women typically begin undergoing physical changes associated with menopause long before that final period. As a woman approaches menopause, her levels of estrogen and progesterone (female hormones produced primarily in the ovaries) begin to decline—until eventually menstrual cycles end. This time of transition leading up to menopause is known as perimenopause and can last anywhere from six months to 10 years.

For most women perimenopause can serve as a kind of buffer—the changes occur gradually, giving women time to adjust. Women undergoing cancer treatment, on the other hand, may not have the luxury of a long, gradual perimenopausal transition. Instead cancer treatment kicks them right into menopause, and it can be a huge shock to the system—both physically and emotionally.

Cancer Treatment–Induced Menopause

Treatment-induced premature menopause differs from natural menopause because it is the result of a sudden rather than a gradual change in hormone levels. Treatment-induced menopause varies from woman to woman and depends on the type of treatment. Women undergoing cancer treatment may experience premature menopause for a variety of reasons: as a direct result of the chemical effects of chemotherapy, from the removal of the ovaries, or as a result of the physical and emotional stress associated with treatment.

Some chemotherapy agents rob the body of folic acid, which strongly affects the ovaries and can lead to menopause. In other instances, chemotherapy can simply place the body under enormous stress, and the body responds by taking care of other organ systems first. Put simply, the reproductive system is not critical to personal survival, so when the body is under extreme stress, it’s the first system to shut down.

Treatment-induced menopause happens over a period of months or, in the case of oophorectomy (removal of ovaries), in 24 hours. “For most—but not all—women, it’s a rougher ride [than natural menopause],” explains Judith Boice, ND, LAc, naturopathic oncology provider at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and author of Menopause with Science and Soul: A Guidebook for Navigating the Journey (Celestial Arts, 2007; $16.95).

Boice helps women navigate treatment-induced menopause. “These women don’t get the benefit of 10 years to make the transition,” she explains. “I always remind them that in a few months or 24 hours they just went through what some women take a decade to do.”


What to Expect

Menopause is unique for every woman, and treatment-induced menopause is no different. The best advice for any woman approaching menopause is to expect the unexpected. “I talk to women about the things that may happen, but I try not to set them up for any one scenario,” Boice explains. Treatment-induced menopause can be challenging, but some women move through it with ease.

The most common symptoms associated with menopause are hot flashes and night sweats. Night sweats can be particularly bothersome because they interfere with sleep. Other symptoms may include vaginal dryness, muscle pain, difficulty sleeping, joint pain, impaired memory/concentration, anxiety, depression, hair loss, weight gain, increased cholesterol, adrenal fatigue, thyroid disorders, high blood pressure, and skin changes.

Boice is quick to point out that these are possible symptoms, not inevitable ones. “There is no one right way to go through menopause,” she says.


Making Healthy Lifestyle Choices

The abrupt transition of treatment-induced menopause can be straining—but there are a variety of strategies to ease the way, and most of them fall under the same category: healthy lifestyle choices.

Boice insists that nutrition, exercise, and relaxation techniques are crucial to coping with menopausal symptoms. She says that reducing and managing stress is key. “The more in control a woman feels, the fewer hot flashes she has,” Boice explains. “Anything she does to feel more relaxed will help her feel more in control.”

Some effective relaxation techniques include meditation, guided imagery, deep breathing, qigong, tai chi, and yoga. Many women find that aromatherapy is helpful—for example, inhaling essential oil of lavender promotes a sense of relaxation.

Exercise is another effective stress reduction technique, and for women coping with menopause it comes with an even bigger payoff: those who exercise at least three hours per week have 70 percent fewer hot flashes.

Finally, choosing healthy foods is always important, but even more so when facing menopause. Support the body with nutrient-dense food and avoid foods that have a warming effect, such as coffee, alcohol, chicken, and spicy dishes.

Holistic Remedies

Choosing a healthy lifestyle is an excellent way to face menopausal symptoms head on—but sometimes it’s just not enough. In those cases it may be necessary to enlist the help of a doctor or holistic practitioner. There are a variety of effective strategies for managing treatment-induced menopause, including homeopathy, herbal remedies, and acupuncture.

“Herbs can be wonderful, but it’s important to work with someone trained in herbal medicine and herb/drug interactions,” Boice cautions. “There is a group of herbs called adaptogens that help the body adapt to stress levels and support the adrenal glands, immune system, and hormonal system. They can be really helpful in working with menopausal symptoms.”

Boice says that acupuncture has also been shown to be effective in reducing symptoms of menopause because it helps restore balance in the body.

A qualified naturopathic doctor, acupuncturist, or homeopath can provide safe and effective remedies that address menopausal symptoms without interfering with cancer treatment.


Making the Transition

If you’re facing treatment-induced menopause, rest assured that you will get through it. Get support—reach out to your doctors, holistic practitioners, and other women who have been there. Remember to breathe deeply, relax, and keep an open mind. As with all things, this too shall pass.

Managing Post-Oophorectomy Menopause

Women who undergo oophorectomy face instant menopause. Judith Boice, ND, LAc, recommends some key post-oophorectomy strategies for managing menopause:

Adaptogen herbs can be helpful for managing the fluctuations that follow oophorectomy. Work with a holistic practitioner to identify the proper herbs for your body and ensure that they won’t interfere with cancer treatment.

During recovery time in the hospital, listening to a guided relaxation recording can help promote a sense of calm.

Use the essential oil of lavender to promote relaxation.

Acupuncture is a helpful strategy for addressing changing patterns in the body.

Keep an open mind and stay open to the possibility that you may feel good and transition with ease.


 reprinted with permission Cancer Fighters Thrive, Fall 2012, Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA®)