Today we're talking to Kristin, who tells us about her trying experience with early menopause, following the removal of her ovaries.
“I wish for women to understand our hormones and the effect they have on our
health and our mental frame of mind.”
Thank you Kristin for sharing your story with us.
You’ve told us that you were first diagnosed with teratomas when you were 14 years old, could you tell us about that experience?
I was at a friend’s birthday party with a group of girls and we were lying on our backs comparing stomachs. Despite being skinny, my belly was fully bloated and a friend suggested I went to see a doctor. At this point my period had only started 6 months earlier and I was very inexperienced regarding my female health. When I went to the doctors, he sent me straight to the hospital. It was scary. There I was, a young girl surrounded by male doctors talking about my body, questioning if I was pregnant. It was strange and intrusive. They did an ultrasound and found a 25cm large teratoma growing on my right ovary. Teratomas are non cancerous tumors made up of several different types of tissue including hair, muscle and bone. Because of the size, I needed laparotomy surgery which is a long cut down the lower abdomen. They removed the teratoma and also removed my right ovary.
It took time for me to recover and then within 12 months, a new teratoma was detected on my left ovary. It was small so they operated on me differently, with less invasive and debilitating surgery. Even though teratomas are common amongst women, they usually only get one in their lifetime. Over the next 13 years, I had eight more small teratomas grow on my ovary and each one had to be surgically removed. In 2011, the doctors decided the best thing for me was to remove my left ovary. Although I had considered this before, I’m so happy I hadn’t had the surgery earlier because going into surgical menopause has been horrendous, far harder than coping with the teratomas.
What was the care and support you were given like after your final surgery and managing your hormonal changes?
I’ve always found that, gynecologically, the doctors know what they’re talking about and the care was good regarding my teratomas. But my hormonal health and menopause has been a completely different experience. It’s taken me almost ten years to find the right doctor and the right treatment to help me with the hormonal imbalances my body is going through. Because both of my ovaries were removed, I no longer ovulate and can only produce a very small percentage of estrogen, progesterone or testosterone from other parts of my body. Without this natural release of hormones, my mental health, activity levels, and sense of happiness completely crumbled. There are frustrations like the fact that I can’t do home hormonal checks, you have to have a blood test at the doctors so there’s little way of tracking our own bodies health.
What has been your journey in finding the right solutions for you?
After my second ovarian surgery, I was advised to take hormonal supplements. These really impacted my mood and I didn’t feel good on them so within a year I turned to more holistic methods of treatment. I tried to have vitamins and supplements but the side effects of being menopausal were unbearable. For two years I was struggling with hot sweats, memory loss, bad moods and tiredness. I couldn’t sleep through the night because I’d wake up in a wave of heat every hour or two. It was horrendous and I didn’t feel like myself. Alongside having psychotherapy, I also found a new doctor who told me I was too young to not be having hormonal supplements. It has been a journey of finding what is right for me because there’s many pros and cons of treatments. I’ve tried 14 different types of hormonal supplements in varying quantities, from patches to creams. Each one has brought with it a whole array of side effects. I’ve had problems with my skin, liver, blood, hair loss, and psychological well-being due to the treatments. I found I would cry so much over something which typically I would be fine about. Only recently have I found a progesterone only supplement made from yams that’s been completely life changing for me.
What have been the psychological effects of your experience?
For me, one of the most difficult parts was related to my fertility and reproductive functions because not having my ovaries made me feel damaged, like I wasn’t enough. I have a fifteen year old son, he's pretty great. I had him when I was 22 and never thought to have a bigger family. However, after having my second ovary removed, I found myself craving another child. It was very intense, and this feeling lasted for a long time. I looked into egg donorship and found that German-speaking countries deny women the right to use another woman’s egg to become pregnant. This makes no sense to me and I think it needs to change. Especially because this law doesn’t exist in other countries like Spain and the UK.
What would you like to change about the conversations surrounding menopause?
I’ve come to recognise just how little is known, discussed, and shared amongst women going through this drastic shift in their life. In Germany, the loss of ovaries isn’t recognised as its own disease and menopause in general is treated as something that women just go through and move on from. But the experience can have extreme effects. You can go through five to eight years of your body shifting hormonally and once you come out of the menopause, you are not the same person as you were before.
What advice can you offer anyone struggling with their hormonal health?
As women we often try to go through experiences without complaining. We grow up thinking we must cope and that if we are struggling, then we are weak. But in fact, there are reasons for the problems and it’s often to do with our hormones. Because we don’t talk about this, we don’t know what help is out there. I’ve also found that making choices regarding our own health comes with insecurity; we don’t know as much as the doctors so we feel naive. However, when your gut feeling says something is wrong, then look for a second, third, fourth opinion.
In general, I’d say pay attention to your problems, whether it’s sleeping at night or your activity levels changing, and see how it correlates to your hormones and menstrual cycles. You can find many ways to manage menopause, maybe it is a yoga class, a change in your nutrition, an additional vitamin, or something to help with sleep. There are many resources available so I suggest you start asking your environment for suggestions. Ask the people around you, friends, colleagues, neighbours.