The taboos around talking about menopause and perimenopause (the lead-up menopause) are finally crumbling. But we’ve still got a long way to go before all women feel prepared for the changes that arrive at midlife.
Not all women will have symptoms. This time of life is a very individual experience. We talk to five women about what they wish they’d known about menopause and how others can learn from their experiences.
Here’s what they had to say.
“I wish I had known about a symptom like depression which wasn’t talked about so much,” says Maria.
“I never got hot flushes,” she says. “I got the depression side of menopause. It was a very taboo topic for ethnic women and so was a very isolating experience.
“I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t let my emotions out,” she says. “Sometimes I couldn’t even hear my husband or my daughter speaking.”
During this busy life stage, Maria also had to learn how to let some things go. “If something went wrong at home or at work, it was overwhelming for me. It felt like a very heavy burden.”
“I was pedantic about everything, and everything had to run like clockwork,” she says. “But as I learned, life doesn’t always work like clockwork.”
When Melissa began experiencing symptoms – like weight gain, joint pain, hair-loss, vaginal dryness, and acne – she was only 42 years old, so menopause wasn't really on the agenda.
“I saw eight doctors and it took four years to finally get a diagnosis,” she recalls. In the end, she had the arrival of hot flushes to thank for a definitive diagnosis.
“What I’ve learned is that menopause is about hormonal change,” she says. “It’s not about age. It’s a stage in life.”
Initially Melissa was hesitant about using medication to manage her symptoms but had a change of heart. “I didn’t listen to the conversation around MHT [menopausal hormone therapy]. I had this self-imposed pressure to do it naturally.
“I did eventually go on MHT, but I wish I had done it earlier.”
“I wish I’d had a doctor who was interested in menopause who could have educated me about it and provided me with options,” says Robyn, who experienced anxiety, sleep issues and joint pain during her menopause.
“Even to have said, ‘let’s refer you to someone else’, which might have given me access to clearer information.
“I felt shut down [by my doctor]. I felt I was whingeing… What I needed was someone to validate my experience and to explore my options.”
Natalie wishes she’d known more about early menopause before experiencing it herself. She underwent a hysterectomy (an operation that removes the womb) to treat severe symptoms of endometriosis. The operation sent her into menopause in her early 40s.
“Looking back now, I think I went through perimenopause but just didn’t recognise it.
“I wish I had also known that symptoms could last this long. I’m still having hot flushes and night sweats. It has been 12 years now and I’m still looking for the other side.”
The only sign that Ntumba was in menopause was when her period stopped, aged 46 or 47. She is one of the 20% of women who have no symptoms.
“All along I was having periods and no trouble,” she says. “Then it stopped. I had some drops and after a few days, a few more drops. And then nothing. No pain. No problems.”
Ntumba comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and moved to Australia as a refugee six years ago. She explains that, as a culture, menopause is an accepted part of life.
“We don’t make a big deal of it [menopause],” she says. “It just comes automatically.”