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In the Heat of the Moment: Menopause and a Cancer Diagnosis

Look at any group of 50-some women out at lunch together and you will invariably see some sleeveless tops in the cooler months. Some taking on and off of sweaters. Some fanning with a menu. Hot flashes are a nearly universal aspect of passing into menopause, causing a rising heat wave up the back of the neck and often a red face with some perspiration. This can be mildly annoying to some women, while others are embarrassed or even incapable of focusing on the task at hand. Hormone replacement therapy (estrogen, sometimes in combination with a progestin) can fix this problem, but what if you couldn’t or didn’t want to use hormones? This is often the dilemma for women with a cancer diagnosis.

Some cancers, particularly breast cancers, are thought to be caused and fueled by hormones. Sometimes treatments even include hormone modifiers that exacerbate menopausal symptoms. How are women battling a cancer diagnosis supposed to deal with hot flashes, insomnia, and vaginal dryness?

Many non-hormonal treatments can be successful for symptom relief. Certain vitamins or compounds also used for treatment of other medical conditions can be effective against hot flashes and night sweats. Supplements, behavior adjustments, or prescription medications can address sleep troubles. Countless vaginal moisturizers and lubricants are available to reduce discomfort and reestablish intimacy. New exciting products are being developed for these exact indications, and occasionally targeted forms of standard hormones can even be used safely.

The first step is to discuss these issues with your health care professional. Although menopausal changes are not technically dangerous, they can significantly interfere with lifestyle and productivity. Sometimes a specific symptom needs attention, while more commonly treatment solves a constellation of interrelated issues. If your medical team is not familiar or comfortable with options, you may benefit from a specialist’s care. In the heat of the moment, ask for relief.