The Surprise of Early Menopause

What are some ways your body has surprised you? An unexpected zit the day you are scheduled to drop significant money on professional headshots? A stomach virus 24 hours before you depart on your anniversary cruise?

My body surprised me with periods that started when I was 9.

The date a woman’s first period started is important to cancer researchers, and I have been involved in the Cancer Prevention Study-3 for almost 15 years.

I signed up for the study (and allowed them to take blood) when I was participating in Relay for Life. As we left the tent where the signup was occurring, we were given postcards to self-address. The postcard reads: “When you enrolled at your local Relay for Life event, you were asked to record the start date of your last menstrual period. Understanding exactly where you were in your menstrual cycle at the time you gave blood is very important. For this reason, we need to know the exact date of your next menstrual period.

The prepaid postcard had a spot where I could record my next period and return to the study organizers.

I placed the card in a cabinet in my bathroom where I kept feminine protection products.

And it sat in that cabinet for approximately 14 years, until I took it out as I prepared to write this blog post.

I never had another period. I was 41.

The Surprise of Early Menopause
There it is, in all its upside down glory. Right behind some cough syrup that expired three years ago, some contraceptives that I clearly didn’t need either and some empty yeast infection treatment boxes. Also, maybe I should dust sometime.

The physical part of early menopause

Because I am 54, I have among my friends circle many women who are experiencing the classic symptoms often associated with menopause. Hot flashes are the most frequent occurrence.

Although I always empathize with my friends whose internal furnaces are on overdrive and who have to change their sheets often because of being so sweaty at night, I can’t personally relate. I never had hot flashes. Then again, I didn’t know I was menopausal.

I was 31 when I had my daughter and 34 when I had my son. Three years later, we began trying to conceive our third, and that didn’t go according to plan. During my third pregnancy, the doctor couldn’t find a heartbeat at around 10 weeks. I remember sitting in the exam room, reading some luxury magazine about travel to Spain, trying to reconcile the rapid change from expectation (literally) to loss.

The next time I got pregnant, it was just as sad but somehow not all that shocking when the doctor couldn’t find a heartbeat at around the 8-week point. It was around this time that the term “old eggs” got thrown into the mix. I insisted on genetic testing for the embryo, which did turn out to have a significant chromosomal defect that most likely caused it to stop developing.

Although we kept trying after that, I never got pregnant again. I made an appointment with my OB/GYN to discuss the situation. I really like this physician (he had been my OB during one of the pregnancies that did not remain viable), but the afternoon fell apart a bit. He was running way behind, and I had to pick up a child at afterschool. I think we may have had five minutes … maybe seven. It was long enough for him to say, “your bloodwork reflects that you’re in perimenopause.” I don’t recall asking if it was possible for me to conceive; my recollection is more that I knew this didn’t bode well (and being me I was freaking out about the $1-per-minute penalty at the afterschool program).

I had possessed a subtle fear of menopause for a long time. As a child, I had been told my mom’s depression was “menopause.” As an adult, I had a wise therapist who pointed out that menopause doesn’t last 10 years.

Although I look back on the time that I now realize I was headed toward early menopause and see some signs (my periods got erratic, I experienced some mood changes), none of it was what I had dreaded.

In addition, it is such a freeing sensation to not have to worry about birth control. No pads or tampons either. There’s one less thing to worry about (and buy).

The emotional part of early menopause

I have several friends who had “surprise babies” in their early 40s. I would be lying to tell you I haven’t struggled with that. Of course I’m happy for them, but it often takes me a few beats mentally to channel my thinking about this, even now. Usually these friends are *shocked* to find themselves pregnant. They have all turned out to be amazing parents to their “surprise babies,” but most of them talked about how this was not at all the plan. The part that is hard to reconcile is that, for us, a third child was in the plan.

The surprising joy of having bandwidth

I am not a fan of the word “bandwidth” in general. I think it is overused these days.

However, it is also exactly what I think of at this stage in my life. After leaving the job I held for almost 20 years, followed by a few rough years of caregiving while also freelancing, I have a job I love along with the mental and actual bandwidth to dig in to it.

I see the parents around me, juggling the heavy demands of raising children, building a career and trying to keep balls in the air, and I remember well the stress of never feeling I was giving any of it enough.

It feels like a luxury to be able to spend an extra few minutes getting a social media image just right for work. I can spend an additional hour on a project that is not strictly required.

I still need to make more time for the people in my life, and lately I’ve been craving fresh air and the outdoors.

But I have choices I didn’t have at any other stage of life and the time to pursue them. I have the gift of being able to disrupt aging.

Maybe it’s time to throw a particular postcard away too.

The Surprise of Early Menopause

This post is made possible with support from AARP’s Disrupt Aging. All opinions are my own.

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