I found out this morning that I am officially postmenopausal. I had a phone call from my oncologist to tell me, in his words, ‘the good news’. I had a blood test last week to see if my menopause is permanent. Chemo for breast cancer causes menopausal symptoms in most women, but sometimes the ovaries go into hibernation rather than being killed off completely. But in my case, the menopause is permanent and complete. It’s good news in a cancer sense, because it means that I can be put on a drug called Anastrozole which works to prevent my sort of breast cancer by inhibiting the synthesis of oestrogen and therefore reducing the chance of recurrence.
Whilst I’m sure my oncologist got a kick out of the novelty of saying ‘good news’ to one of his patients, the information has left me flatter than the right side of my chest. I am 44, and I am postmenopausal. I am dried up, empty and barren. I have to have my bone density monitored annually because I am at risk of osteoporosis. My skin has become crepey and slack, and is horrendously dry. I have taken to slathering myself in oil, which makes my old lady flannelette pyjamas stick to my skin. It is only a matter of time before I am on the professional bingo circuit.
I guess the hardest thing about knowing that I am officially postmenopausal is the finality of it. It’s not like I miss having my period, but after years of listening to the monthly rhythm of my body, the silence is deafening. When I was in my late teens and 20s the rhythm was regulated by the pill with the dreaded fear of pregnancy lurking around every corner. It was quite magical how those white pills would bring on that regular reassurance that the pill was doing its thing. When I was in my early 30s I wanted to get pregnant but was single, so spent many months in hyper-awareness of those lovely eggs slipping away. Then, when I finally met my very own Richie Cunningham, I found out that I could get pregnant very easily, but not stay pregnant, and so began the obsessive tracking and charting and analysis of the rhythm, in constant search for an explanation and a solution. Finally, one of my rapidly-dwindling egg supply met a wonderful fate, and that embryo burrowed deep inside, staying there for the 9 month long-haul.
Five months after Hugh was born my period came back, I remember feeling so cheated because I was still breastfeeding and everyone knows that keeps your period away. But no, my body was determined to start up its rhythm again, and that made me very hopeful that we’d be able to get pregnant again. We were, but I just couldn’t stay pregnant, and after months and years of heartache and tests and injections and inseminations and all sorts of dreadful arrhythmic interventions, we called it quits. At that point my body seemed to breathe a sigh of relief, and went back to its happy, regular rhythm. It mocked me, teased me, sometimes tortured me. Every month, without fail, there was the rhythm, the regular slow beat of life that seemed to enable every other woman in the universe to get pregnant and stay pregnant. Except me.
Being diagnosed with breast cancer certainly underlined our decision to stop trying for a second child. My cancer was hormonally-driven, and therefore the treatments would pretty much decimate my reproductive system. I knew this, and I had my last period during my first week of chemo. As the months went by, I still wondered if it would come back. It was a possibility, albeit a remote one, but the whole cancer thing had taught me not to trust my body.
Today, I am officially out of the running. I know I was never going to be a 44 year old one-breasted recent cancer survivor who miraculously gets pregnant and has a healthy baby, but in some deep, dark, primal recess of my brain, it was still a possibility. Now, I know there is no possibility, and that has made me quite melancholy. I know I have so much to be thankful for – that I am alive, that I continue to be cancer-free, that I am a middle-class white woman in a western country. But I suspect the sadness will prevail for a little while, so I will ease my pain by looking through photos that bring into sharp, exquisite focus that one, magnificent time when the rhythm of my body created absolute perfection.