Menopause Happens to Young Folks Too
What to do when you find out you’re in menopause and you’re in your twenties? Writer and au pair Kelly Galvan turned an untimely challenge into an opportunity to know her body and improve her lifestyle. Here’s her story.
Life throws curveballs from time to time. Kelly Galvan’s curveball was waking up, hazy from anaesthesia, to doctors telling her she no longer had ovaries. She would be turning 25 later that week. Before the surgery, Kelly hardly even thought about her ovaries or what having them meant for her.
Kelly, who is half Colombian, half Venezuelan, had just finished her bachelor’s degree in economics at the University of Andes in Bogotá, Colombia. She loved spending time with friends, writing and running marathons.
When Kelly was 19, she started to have irregular periods. When her periods came, she felt excruciating pain. Three years later, the doctors discovered endometriosis on her ovaries was the cause of the pains. Endometriosis is a condition that happens when tissue from the lining of the uterus, the endometrium, or similar tissue, grows outside of the uterus.
They gave her hormones that were meant to remove the excess skin tissue from her ovaries, but after a year it had multiplied. The skin tissue formed cysts called endometrioma. They looked like brown beads dotted all over her ovaries.
Going through menopause at 24
Surgery was the last option. Doctors told her they were simply going to remove the endometriosis that now covered both her ovaries. But mid-surgery, the doctors decided it was best to remove her ovaries completely. In other words, they performed an oophorectomy.
After the surgery, she followed the doctor’s orders and rested in bed for a week. She had been told not to exercise or walk. When she went to the doctor’s again a week later she was told she was in menopause. Premature menopause. This is when a person goes through menopause before the age of 40. It’s estimated to affect one percent of women under 40, and just 0,1% of women under 30.
– At school I learned about menstruation, but I didn’t know anything about menopause. All I knew was it had something to do with why my mother’s periods stopped, she says.
The quick drop in estrogen after taking out the ovaries can create even worse symptoms than you get during natural menopause. Two weeks after the surgery, Kelly’s symptoms arrived. At first she had hot flashes two or three times a day, then they started happening every hour, lasting for twenty seconds each time.
– At 45 you have had more time to prepare for menopause. I was not prepared in the same way, she says.
The journey to relieve premature menopause symptoms
The doctors had given Kelly two options: hormonal replacement therapy (HRT) or natural remedies. At first she tried HRT. It gave her headaches, breast tenderness and acne. She gained weight. She felt depressed. Around the same time, she also started her first job after university as a project analyst for a dairy company. After four months, when the side effects became unbearable, she tried the natural way. This meant reading up on natural remedies to gain knowledge about it. Her doctor helped her seek out the necessary information.
She took sage pills for hot flashes. Sage, or salvia, has been used for generations in folk medicine to treat menopause symptoms. Although not much research has been done on the effectiveness of sage, some studies have shown that it has been helpful for menopause symptoms. A clinical trial in the Advances in therapy journal showed that a fresh sage preparation taken once a day in capsules for two months reduced the severity of hot flashes in menopausal women. They helped Kelly too, to an extent.
She also took supplements of vitamin B12, C, D, E, omega 3 and magnesium. And she ate a lot of soy every day. Soy beans, soy plant-based meat, soy milk. Soy contains isoflavones, a kind of plant estrogen that can work like human estrogen when eaten, but which is much weaker. Some studies have shown soy to help with menopause symptoms. Kelly also started running 5-8 km every day.
Learning to listen to her body’s changes
Despite the lifestyle changes she was still having sleeping problems. She continued to experience mood swings and depression. She stopped working after four months because it was too challenging to be in the office with the symptoms. When she went back to her doctor she was prescribed contraceptive pills, a synthetic form of estrogen and progesterone.
After six months at home, Kelly left her office job and moved to Holland to be a part-time au pair. Au pairing has taken off pressure and allowed her more time and flexibility to cope with her body’s changes whilst still staying active with the children and spending time outside. Today she au pairs in Stockholm, Sweden and works part-time as a financial writer for an economics society at the university she went to in Bogotá.
Four years after her surgery, Kelly continues to take contraceptive pills and keeps up her healthy routines and lifestyle to support her body and mind during premature menopause. She has cut out chocolate and caffeine from her diet. She is mindful of her sleep hygiene. She exercises but keeps it light. Her stomach is still sensitive from the operation and can easily get inflamed.
– Right now my job is to learn to listen to my body. To figure out what kind of exercise is good for me. It all depends on what works for me, so I have to keep trying different solutions to see how my body responds, Kelly says.
Seeing the good in living with premature menopause
She has also learned to accept her body’s reactions and changes as they are. Psychologists have helped her make sense of what has happened to her and encouraged her to keep moving forward in life, despite the symptoms.
– I’m not going to let it affect my life. I don’t want to feel different just because I went into premature menopause. It’s just a condition. The same happens with women who are older than me. It’s a part of their process and it’s a part of mine, Kelly says.
Kelly chooses today to view her experiences in a positive light. Yes, she has to live with the symptoms, but she doesn’t get migraines anymore like she did before menopause. She doesn’t have to deal with PMS like others. She says that in a way she’s happy there’s no pressure on her to have kids. And if she did want kids she could adopt, or maybe her future partner already has kids. The one thing she still feels is missing is finding other people in her situation to talk to, which has been challenging because the condition is so rare.
Later this year Kelly is planning to get back to working in an office full-time as a writer. She feels ready now that she’s learned enough about how her body works and how to take care of it.
– If I don’t keep up my routines one week the next week will be hell. But I’ve learned to listen to my body and take care of my symptoms as best as I can. I try not to pay too much attention to my hot flashes, they’re not forever. Well, in a way they are, but on the positive side, they’re not always there.
Who: Kelly Galvan.
Age: 28 years old.
Lives in: Stockholm, Sweden.
Does: Au pair and economics writer.
Family: Sisters and parents.
Premature menopause facts
What is premature menopause? Premature menopause is when you go through menopause before the age of 40, whether natural or induced. Early menopause is menopause before the age of 45.
What symptoms do you get? Those who go through premature menopause often experience the same symptoms as when you are in perimenopause, symptoms can be even worse. See a list of the 34 possible menopause symptoms here. So added psychological stress or sadness that may come with losing the ability to get pregnant at a young age.
What causes premature menopause? Premature menopause has many potential causes. It may happen because of genetics, health conditions or surgery to remove ovaries, like in Kelly Galvan’s case, or surgery to remove the uterus.
Why is it especially important to lead a healthy lifestyle if this happens? Leading a healthy lifestyle is important if you go through premature menopause because living longer without the protection of higher estrogen levels means you have a higher risk for health conditions such as heart disease and osteoporosis. Exercise like strength training is an option, or you can opt for lighter forms like yoga or running.
This condition affects around 1 in 10 women in their reproductive years, which is about 176 million women in the world.
Symptoms include painful periods, painful ovulation, pelvic pain, pain during sex or after sex, heavy bleeding and fatigue.
There is no known cause of endometriosis, but it may be genetic, meaning if your mother or sister have had it, you may also be likely to get it.
At present there is no cure for endometriosis.
S Bommer, P Klein, A Suter, (2011). First time proof of sage's tolerability and efficacy in menopausal women with hot flushes. Advances in Therapy.
Early and premature menopause, NHS Inform.
Endometriosis: Should I Have a Hysterectomy and Oophorectomy? University of Michigan Health
Facts about endometriosis, endometriosis.org.