In the season three finale of Broad City, Abbi unexpectedly gets her period while on an airplane to Israel. During the mad tampon hunt that inevitably ensues, Abbi approaches an older woman, who replies she doesn’t have a tampon but is flattered to be asked. “Oh, I totally forgot about menopause,” Abbi says, to which the woman replies: “Menopause isn’t represented in mainstream media.”
The line was funny, astute and unfortunately very accurate. It’s hard to think of a show or movie that so much as mentions the word. And yet an estimated 6,000 women reach menopause each day in the U.S. alone — that’s over 2 million per year. Defined as the permanent end of a woman’s menstrual period, menopause usually occurs for women between the ages of 40 and 58 as a result of the natural loss of ovarian follicular function. While menopause is technically recognized as beginning after 12 months without a menstrual period, common symptoms like hot flashes, trouble sleeping and mood swings can start several years earlier.
In an effort to chip away at the severe shortage of conversation happening publicly around menopause, I asked three women with different experiences and perspectives on the topic to share what it was like.
“I was fully menopausal by the time I was 40.”
Karyn, age 49
I was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 39, and unfortunately, my treatment threw me into early menopause.
In some ways, it’s a good thing I went through it then, because now I don’t have to worry about things other women have to worry about. But at the time, I had hot flashes, my hair got really dry and thin, and my skin became dry and patchy. Because I didn’t have many girlfriends going through it at the same time, I had a lot of questions. Luckily, I had a great team of doctors and some people in my cancer support groups who had been through it. And if I was hanging out with my mom and her friends and they were talking about it, I’d be like, “Yeah, I know what you mean!”
For me, the emotions associated with menopause probably fell under the same category of dealing with the changes that came from having breast cancer fairly young. I had a double mastectomy and went through menopause, so basically all the things that made me feel like a woman were eliminated at the same time. I felt like an old lady at 39.
At that age, I still had several friends who had babies and were pregnant, and I wasn’t necessarily thinking that I never wanted any more kids. My husband and I had only been married a year, and prior to me getting cancer, we talked about having a child of our own (we both have kids from previous marriages). But all of a sudden, it just wasn’t an option anymore. It was sad because it wasn’t my choice; it was another repercussion of what I had been through. I believe everything happens for a reason, though.
People go through menopause differently, but for me, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I got hot flashes, and it was weird, but not awful. It was kind of like when you got your first period as a preteen or teenager — it was a change, but it was just part of the continuum of life. You go through so many transitions in your life, from a girl to a teenager to a young adult to a mother…this is just another one.
I’m now the age most people hit menopause — around 51 is the average. Soon all my friends will be starting to join the club, and I’ll be like, “Been there, done that.”
“Menopause is a rite of passage.”
Michelle, age 53
For me, menopause started a couple of years ago. I’m not completely through it, but I think I’m through most of it. The symptoms I noticed were hot flashes, trouble sleeping and changes in physical appearance and mood. For me, hot flashes were the worst. I was in a constant state of hot flashes coming unexpectedly, and that was really frustrating and difficult.
All the women I know who have gone through menopause experienced something, even if it wasn’t necessarily bad. From what I’d heard from my friends, I expected hot flashes to happen mostly at night and wake me up with night sweats. The reality for me was they would happen at any time of day or night, and they would come out of nowhere. They would start from the inside and move out, so that all of a sudden I would feel like the inside of my body was 120 degrees, and I couldn’t stop it. It really felt like it was rising up like a thermometer. I would be sitting at dinner, sometimes with business colleagues at an event, and it would just start happening. In most of those situations, I tried to conceal it or would excuse myself and try to move to a cooler place or walk outside. But one time, and only once, I was having a hot flash in front of a complete stranger at a dinner, and I flat-out said, “I’m sorry, I’m having a hot flash.” And she said, “I can actually see it.”
I didn’t talk to too many people about it — maybe just a couple of friends and my husband. My mother had had a partial hysterectomy when she was in her 30s, so I didn’t experience watching her go through anything or get any hint of what I was going to go through. Most of my friends did not experience it the way that I did. I don’t think it’s a weird thing to talk about if you’re talking to a woman, and I was never embarrassed about it, but I would not discuss it with a man other than my husband.
I actually read a book about it when I started going through it. Someone advised me to read it, but I found it completely useless. I just feel like it’s something that’s a rite of passage. You just have to allow your body to go through it. My best advice is to embrace it. Allow the process to take place.
“Compared to what I’d been through with periods, menopause was mild.”
Kim, age 54
I felt like my menopause symptoms weren’t that big of a deal because I had been through so much with my periods and endometriosis and fertility issues. I’d been through the ringer.
The worst part about menopause was that I went for about nine months without a period and thought it was over, but they tell you you’re not really out of the woods until you go a full year [without menstruating]. I would get to nine or 10 months and then have a period, so it was like I was back to square one. That went on for about three years, where the periods were few and far between but never far enough to be able to say, “I’m done.” But then, finally, it was over. It’s been around two years now.
My periods were always bad, ever since a month before I had my first period at 16. I experienced painful cramping, nausea, diarrhea — all of that every month. The disorder I had was endometriosis, which causes pain and can interfere with fertility. I had to get a laparoscopy, a surgery used to diagnose and remove endometriosis, as well as a uterine polypectomy, a removal of small growths (polyps), twice.
Getting pregnant was really difficult for me. My daughter was kind of a fluke, born completely naturally with no help, but two years after she was born, we were trying again and nothing was happening. I went through various treatments, from low-intervention to extreme intervention, and I finally got pregnant with twins after my second attempt at in vitro fertilization. Pregnancy was what finally made all the period pain better for a while.
But after the twins were born, there was a point in my late 40s when I was having some very irregular flows — I think periods were coming every two weeks. It was hard to control it and plan around it. I considered getting a hysterectomy, but things were so busy with my life between family and work that I just didn’t know how I could take time off to do the surgery. I didn’t know which was worse — taking six months off to recover or dealing with the erratic periods. Ultimately, by procrastinating and not making a decision, the decision was made for me, and I dealt with it until it stopped. In hindsight, I think that irregularity was premenopausal.
When I finally went through menopause, I had some hot flashes, but they were really fast, only lasting a minute or two, and it was just a warm feeling. It wasn’t annoying or aggravating or intrusive. I also started waking up at odd hours in the middle of the night, and I couldn’t get back to sleep. Any emotional experiences I had probably came from a combination of the lack of sleep and the hormones. I think in total it lasted about a year. It’s all relative, so because of the things I’d been through, I didn’t think of it as a big deal.
I have a group of 14 girlfriends who all get together on a monthly basis, and menopause comes up sometimes. My friends are really funny and they joke about it while keeping tabs and taking notes. One friend had three important pieces of advice that everyone should hear: First, whatever you’re going through, whether you think it may be unusual or not, talk about it with your doctors and other people. She was having blood clots the size of pancakes and had to get tested for anemia. Second, never feel embarrassed or inferior by whatever is happening. Some women feel hesitant talking about sexual components of it — getting your period all the time as a menopause effect isn’t exactly romantic. You need that communication. Third, be open to Eastern medicine like acupuncture. That’s what stopped her hot flashes. And if your doctor isn’t willing to discuss those options, find a new doctor.
Talking to friends also puts your own experience in perspective. A couple of my friends did have hysterectomies, and several also had been through things like double mastectomies due to family histories of breast cancer or other major illnesses. I know some of those people went through harder things than I did.
Each woman’s experience is different, but talking about it is good for everyone.
Collages by Emily Zirimis.