One of the bonuses of going through chemotherapy at 43 was that it caused me to commence early menopause. There are a range of drugs used for breast cancer (the drugs vary based on type and stage of cancer) and many of them destroy ovarian reserve, which in turn causes the related hormonal functions of the body to start switching off. Your period stops, your skin starts to slacken and your bones lose density. Add that to what you’re already going through with chemotherapy, and you are essentially caught up in a giant maelstrom of awful.
A woman who hasn’t had chemo will usually start going through the precursor to menopause, called perimenopause, over a 3-5 year period in her late 40s or early 50s. She’ll then go through full-blown menopause which may take another couple of years to complete. From what I’ve been told, for those women, menopause could be likened to a slow, meandering steam train ride through the end of their fertile years. Some parts of the journey are spent admiring the scenery, some are spent lying down in the sleeper car with a gin and tonic, and some are spent trying to find someone to help you turn down the temperature of the bloody airconditioning.
For those of us who go through menopause brought on by chemo, it’s the same journey but done like an attempt at the world land speed record, where you start off being forcibly pushed onto a bullet train by a conductor wearing white gloves, and get off 45 minutes later in a strange town, minus your ovaries, libido and sense of humour.
Menopause is regularly referenced in movies and tv series, so we all know it involves hot flushes and loss of libido (ain’t nothing funnier than a middle-aged sweaty woman with no interest in sex). But whilst these two symptoms are obvious (and awful), my worst symptom brought on by the evil triumvirate of cancer, chemotherapy and menopause has been the appearance of a nasty little gremlin that appears to have taken up residence inside me, and who has a bit of a hair-trigger.
As many people will attest (although not within my earshot, for they have learned their lesson) I go from zero to really bloody angry in about six seconds. I arc up to volcanic proportions over things like the gravy I’ve made being too runny, or not being able to find a nail file in the crap drawer, or the cat wanting to be fed. As a result, I swear a lot, especially when driving … and working, and cooking, and cleaning, and shopping, and walking and watching tv … Sometimes I throw things, I regularly compose narky emails to work colleagues which I (mostly) don’t send, and much to my shame I often speak to my poor, long-suffering husband in a less than loving tone.
Nobody else knows this (well I guess they do now!) but I have named my gremlin Seether after the song by the band Veruca Salt. The lyrics go a little something like this:
Seether is neither big nor small
Seether is the centre of it all
I try to rock her in my cradle
I try to knock her out
I try to cram her back in my mouth
Can’t fight the seether
When I am feeling especially uptight, I sing this song in my head (to avoid looking like a total menopausal nutcase in public), or out loud if possible. I picture the little, green, chain-smoking freak in my mind, sing the lyrics, and often end up laughing to myself at the absurdity of it all, which means it’s worked. Most nights I sing it in the shower in an attempt to rid myself of the Seether before I set about relaxing for the night. Boob in box, bit of gremlin visualisation, a couple of verses of Seether and then it’s time for an episode of Call the Midwife. Living the dream, people, living the dream.
Because my cancer was stimulated by oestrogen, I’m unable to take any of the medications used to manage menopause. So it’s a mind game, and my fervent hope is that the Seether will gradually disappear as my body learns to live minus all those fertile lady hormones. In the meantime, I’ll continue to practice my version of mindfulness.