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Coping with Sudden Menopause

When menopause arrives, it can be a difficult experience. Symptoms like night sweats, hot flashes, and vaginal dryness are not enjoyable things to go through, even if they are relatively minor. When these symptoms come on suddenly and severely, it can be extremely disrupting to your life.

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Natural Causes
For some women, menopause comes on much more quickly than for others. When it occurs naturally but early, it's most often attributed to premature ovarian failure. There are a variety of reasons why the ovaries can cease to function properly, but the most common reason is autoimmune disorder, in which the body falsely identifies parts of itself as invaders, causing its immune system to develop antibodies to its own components. For a small percentage of women, genetics are the cause of premature ovarian failure.

Women who encounter sudden menopause are among a group whose menopause symptoms are extremely harsh and disrupting. The intensity of these symptoms can be compounded if the woman has had little to no chance to adjust mentally and physically to these new unpleasant circumstances.

Medical Causes
A surgical procedure is probably the most common reason for sudden menopause. Approximately 600,000 hysterectomies are performed in a year, making it the second most performed major surgery among pre-menopausal women in the United States, according the Centers for Disease Control. A complete hysterectomy is when the uterus and cervix are removed. In about half of all hysterectomies, however, the ovaries—the main source of estrogen—are removed as well, which is referred to as an oophorectomy. When a woman's ovaries are removed, her body goes into immediate menopause.

Unfortunately, this means that the woman is not only recuperating from major surgery, but also dealing simultaneously with the harshness of sudden menopause. Further, if she had hoped to become pregnant, she's also dealing with the reality of that impossibility.

Some common reasons for a hysterectomy are uterine cancer, large or fast-growing benign fibroids, endometriosis, and unusually heavy periods. Depending on a woman's age and the health of all her reproductive organs, a doctor might recommend an oophorectomy as well. Removal of the ovaries not only prevents ovarian cancer, but also is a preventative measure against breast cancer for high-risk women who have BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutations.

Other medical causes for sudden menopause include chemotherapy, radiation treatment, and some medications. During chemotherapy, medications are introduced into the body to fight cancer. Unfortunately, this procedure often damages the ovaries, leaving them inactive. Radiation treatment affects the ovaries in a very similar manner.

The Pros and Cons of Medical Causes
The obvious negative side to sudden menopause is that a woman is thrust swiftly and abruptly into an unknown situation accompanied by unpleasant symptoms. The positive side is that a woman will often know ahead of time, especially if she's facing an oophorectomy or cancer treatment, if she's about to enter this phase. This knowledge gives women time to mentally prepare themselves for a drastic life change, educate themselves about menopause, and come up with a plan for getting through it.

While it's true that a little bit of knowledge and education won't lessen the intensity of a hot flash, having a plan in place might. For example, there are medications and procedures available that are designed to reduce the severity of menopausal symptoms.

Many medications and therapies, such as hormone replacement therapy (HRT), come with their own set of pros and cons, so be sure to consult your doctor if you're considering making plans to cope with an impending menopause. It's important to note, too, that if you've had or are at risk for having breast or uterine cancer, HRT is not for you. Estrogen binds to receptors in the breast and uterus, causing cells to multiply, which is exactly what you don't want if you are at risk. Your natural estrogen worked to your advantage by preparing your uterus for conception and your breasts for nursing your baby, but for many women, HRT is not an option. ♀

Resources for you: http://www.health.ny.gov/community/adults/women/hysterectomy/#normal
http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/breast-cancer/WO00095

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