Two sisters are warning women of the risk of early menopause after heartbreaking diagnoses left them both experiencing early menopause and one sister unable to bear children at just 34 years old.
Just two years ago Kathryn Hardman’s life seemed right on track. At 34, she and her new husband had recently enjoyed a tropical honeymoon in Tanzania and were trying to start their family when Hardman noticed some changes. She experienced hot flashes and grogginess while still on their honeymoon. At first she attributed it to the weather and possible effects of discontinuing her birth control pill. Upon arriving home, however, the symptoms lingered.
Hardman excitedly told her younger sister, Zoe, that she thought she might be pregnant. Zoe, however, had a different reaction to her sister’s symptom list. “I remember having this awful feeling that, rather than being pregnant, Kathryn was going through the menopause,” she told The Telegraph.
Genetics had played a role in menopause for several generations in the Hardman family, so Zoe’s suspicions were not unfounded. She recalled, “Our mum had gone through it at 44 and our grandma at just 40.” The difference in their generations, of course, was that most women were done having children by their forties in Grandma’s day, compared to today’s culture when more women are delaying parenthood.
Kathryn knew her family’s risks, but the reality had not yet hit her personally. “I’ve always known my mum and grandma had been through an early menopause…when we were in our twenties, Mum used to tell [us] not to wait too long to have children—but I never took it seriously.” Her mother and grandmother still had time to have their families before their forties, so Kathryn assumed she would have the same luxury.
To explain the new symptoms, Kathryn visited her general practitioner. She was then sent to the hospital for further testing with a hormone specialist. At the end of the testing, Kathryn’s fears were confirmed: she was going through premature menopause. “I was told I’d never have children of my own and I just felt absolute devastation.”
Premature menopause is when women experience menopause prior to their fortieth birthday. Menopause occurs when a woman’s period stops because her “ovaries stop producing the hormones estrogen and progesterone.” In the U.S. the median age for women beginning menopause is fifty-one. Early menopause is used to describe menopause that begins between age 41 and 45.
Kathryn was referred for Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) for treatment of her premature menopause. During her treatment, one of the first questions her doctors asked was if she had any sisters. When Kathryn told her doctors about her sister, Zoe, they recommended she be tested as well.
At the time, Zoe was in a new relationship and not planning on children in the near future. Zoe saw a physician and her anti-mullerian hormone (AMH) levels were tested. This hormone “is only produced by growing ovarian follicles” and is “thought to reflect the size of the remaining egg supply.” At age 32, Zoe should have had a test result between 10 and 40, but she tested at just 2.6, “[suggesting] she only had a few eggs left.”
Zoe was told to have her eggs harvested and frozen if children were part of her future plans. She quickly began “the process of injecting her stomach every day for 14 days in a bid to boost the production of eggs for collection.” They began the process with five follicles, which should have produced five to fifteen eggs. Zoe had four eggs die and was left with just one egg, which doctors told her was not worth harvesting.
She and her boyfriend decided to try to conceive naturally. In 2016, Zoe had a positive pregnancy test. On September 19, the couple welcomed their daughter, Luna, into the world. The couple is now engaged and plans to try to conceive again later in the year. “We’re going to start trying for another baby this summer, because I’ve been told I’ll go through the menopause fairly soon,” she said.
While big sister Kathryn was left with the irreversible diagnosis of menopause in her thirties, her heartache was what allowed her younger sister to become a mother. Had Kathryn not been diagnosed it is very likely that Zoe would not have been tested and could have begun menopause before she was able to conceive.
If early menopause runs in your family, do not make the same mistake Kathryn Hardman did and assume you will have enough time to have a family later. Talk with your mother and grandmother about their experiences with menopause. If there is a risk for premature menopause, talk with your physician about your risks and the best course of action.
Thankfully, early menopause is a rare condition. The risk for women under age twenty is only one in ten thousand, but by age 30, the risk rises to one in one thousand. At age 40, the numbers jump to one in one hundred women who will experience early menopause. Knowing your family history and the risk for your age should encourage all women to investigate their likelihood for early menopause and avoid the heartache of waiting too long to conceive.
“It’s never going to be easy,” Kathryn admits. “But in time I’ll come to accept the fact I’ll never have my own baby. I might look into egg donation or adoption, but I’m still coming to terms with my diagnosis, so who knows?” She said she feels that more awareness about the symptoms of early menopause could help other women who may be at risk.
“I knew my family history because my mum was always very open, so I urge women to have those conversations with their mums, aunts and grandmas. That way if they suspect something’s amiss, they’ll have the right information to take to their GP,” she said.
“Early menopause affects so many women and some of them, like me, will sadly find out too late. Lucky for me, though, I have my gorgeous niece Luna in my life.”
Watch an interview with the sisters from “This Morning” below: