Surgical Menopause in Young Women: The Medical Epidemic No One Is Talking About

*Article Originally Published on Hormones Matter

Surgical Menopause in Young Women: The Medical Epidemic No One Is Talking About

They call it “Surgical Menopause”, couldn’t they have come up with a better name for it? Something, really anything else would be preferable to attaching the word “menopause” to a young woman still in her prime, still very much at the start of her story. A word that doesn’t conjure up images of graying ladies sitting around a shuffleboard court in West Palm Beach sipping Arnold Palmers out of frosted glasses. I am 30 years old and I’m in surgical menopause. This shouldn’t be happening to me.

Losing the First Ovary

When I was 25, I woke up with an acute pain radiating from my abdomen that was relentless enough for me to wake my mother in the dead of night to rush me to the ER. I thought it was, most likely, appendicitis, so did the emergency room staff, until they saw the ultrasound. I had a solid mass the size of a grapefruit twisted around my left ovary. The sense of urgency became apparent, as the hospital’s top OBGYN surgeon hurried through the night to remove the mass before it ruptured its contents into my belly. The word “Cancer” fluttered in the air, but before I could count to three, the anesthesia kicked in. When I came to, hours later, I was stitched together with six-inch battle wound akin to a C-Section and I had lost my left ovary.

At least I had one working ovary, I thought. I recalled the episode of “Sex and the City” where Miranda, the “smart one”, is informed by her gynecologist that one of her ovaries is lazy and thus becomes concerned that she can no longer be so choosy about men if she’s intent on motherhood. In subsequent episodes, she discovers she is, in fact, pregnant in spite of her bum ovary. But that was the extent of my knowledge of problematic ovaries at the time. It all worked out for Miranda, a woman pushing forty, so naturally I thought it would for me as well.

I hobbled to the hospital bathroom like I was carrying a watermelon between my legs, cracked a joke to the nurse to divert from the seriousness of the situation, my usual coping device. But it hurt to laugh. I slurped back a couple mouthfuls of Jell-O, pressed the button on my morphine drip, and I went back to sleep.

A day later, the pathology returned, revealing that my mass was a Borderline Ovarian Tumor, which is a low malignancy potential ovarian cancer. It’s estimated that 15 out of 100 ovarian tumors are borderline ovarian tumors. Despite this sizable number there is very little research being done on this form of cancer that impacts women between 20-40, their most fertile years. There is a 50% rate of bilateral recurrence, meaning they tend to grow on not one but both ovaries, and the only treatment for it that currently exists is surgery. In short, I was 25 with ovarian cancer having to swallow the bitter pill that I would most likely lose both my ovaries, and thus my fertility, by the age of 30. I was gutted.

I cried for a month following my diagnosis and the possibility of never having children. While it still seemed years away at 25, being a Mother had always been my biggest dream. I envisioned a home filled with children’s laughter, toys and art supplies strewn about in joyful disarray, and myself at the center of it. I never imagined something might happen to render that vision of my future life an impossibility.

The Race to Preserve Fertility

I was quickly referred to a top fertility specialist in NYC to freeze my eggs even though I wasn’t married or planning a family. Over the next four years, I underwent 5 rounds of IVF to freeze eggs and 6 surgeries to remove recurring borderline ovarian tumors. The body that I’d always loved and derived pleasure from became foreign to me, an enemy, an other, a two faced traitor. I dreaded each ultra sound appointment, as the flickering black and white monitor of my uterus inevitably exposed new borderline ovarian tumors growing aggressively.

After these appointments I would ceremoniously lock myself in my room and ugly cry my grief out in private, ultimately picking myself up and pressing onward. I became so stoical simply to get through all my procedures, that often my friends and family didn’t realize how much I was actually going through. If I let myself share, even for a second, all the turbulent emotions that lay just below the surface, I feared I would break into a thousand and one pieces and never be able to put myself back together again, like Humpty Dumpty.