19. Changes: The Menopause, Tamoxifen’s Curse. (Hill climbed, Meall Chuaich)

Amazingly this is the 19th post of a series which is introduced here.

27 October 2017

Mel and I talk non-stop all the way to layby 94 on the A9, an hour’s drive from Inverness.

At its highest point Drumochter is 460m above sea-level and often when I’ve driven through this area the mountain tops have been obscured by cloud, making it seem rather bleak and desolate. It appears uninviting and cold even during summer months. Its bare mountains are battered and scarred by the elements. A lonely and inhospitable place. I imagine people in their cars making their passage through Drumochter as quickly as possible. That most people don’t want to visit here makes me like it even more.

Although the sky over our heads is overcast the summit of Meall Chuaich, the Munro we are setting out to climb, is clear. It’s cold, but there isn’t a breath of wind. We are happy. At 9.10am we turn our backs on the car and march north toward a large gate marking the start of a track. A horn toots twice as a lorry rumbles past. We giggle.

Following a southeasterly direction we join a wider track that runs alongside a concrete aqueduct. We both really need to pee, but are distracted by our continued constant chatter. We can tell each other most things. We talk about how quiet I’ve been.

‘I know how focused you are when you’re writing or painting, but I wasn’t sure if you have been uncommunicative lately because you’ve been working or because you’ve been feeling down?’ Mel says.

‘A bit of both,’ I answer truthfully. ‘I’m struggling with menopause symptoms and am a right moody bitch, but I’ve also been trying to crack on with my painting so it helped to keep my phone off. But yeah, I’ve been feeling quite anti-social while I try to work out what the hell is going on inside me. I was so caught up in the ‘I just need to get myself through chemotherapy, surgery and radiotherapy’ that I wasn’t thinking about what would come next. I thought I’d get to the end of hospital treatments and it’d all be over, but it’s not. It’s just the beginning,’ I say. ‘It’s been one month since radiotherapy finished and I still feel tired, just like I still feel aches and pains from chemotherapy. Come 5pm both brain and body are pretty much closed for business. It doesn’t help that I’m not sleeping well either. The menopause is a big, depressing deal to come to terms with and I just haven’t felt up to being sociable.’

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My painting of Shiva. Traditionally the Hindu god wears a necklace of decapitated heads, I’ve replaced one of the heads with  a depiction of my cancerous breast.

‘Oh no,’ Mel sympathises. ‘I kind of figured you were feeling overwhelmed. How come you aren’t sleeping well?’

”Cause of bastard hot flushes. They’re insane. I throw off the blankets, fall asleep, wake up shivering, cover myself, flush again, throw off the blankets, and so it goes on. I don’t know if lingering tiredness causes my moods to become low or if I’m low anyway, because of the hormonal changes. The Tamoxifen is at the root of it all.’

Like my moods, the hillside’s tracks were all over the place. Mel and I are so busy talking we don’t notice we’ve taken a wrong turn. Only when we reach a newish looking building with ‘Danger of Death’ signs plastered everywhere do we think to check the map, and since we’ve stopped we pee too.

‘So are the things you’re experiencing caused by the menopause or by the Tamoxifen?’ Mel asks, once we are back on route…we’ve already passed Loch Cuaich, a locked, wooden bothy and a small cairn that marks where we leave the wide track. A boggy trail of sunken boot-prints continues uphill and I can’t talk, I need all my breath for breathing (and swearing when bog swallows my feet).

Somehow we lose the trail. It seems to have petered out so we take the easiest line of ascent through skeletons of burned heather toward the ridge. Reaching its stonier ground we then rejoin the path and the going is easier again. But the temperature has dropped. ‘God, what a change with the wind!’ I say as we are blown along.

‘Talking of change, the clocks go back this weekend. I absolutely hate how it messes with my body and mind,’ Mel says.

‘Wait till you start the menopause! Then you’ll know all about your body and mind being fucked with,’ I tell her, laughing, and we talk once more about the symptoms I’ve been experiencing. ‘The Tamoxifen is causing me to go through the menopause, and its symptoms are exaggerated because of the chemotherapy…I think. It’s not just poor concentration, hot flushes, achy joints and suicidally low moods: I lack desire, and I’m scared that this is how it’ll be for the rest of my life.’

‘And how’s Paul reacting to it all?’ Mel asks.

‘Brilliantly. He’s patient and kind and puts no pressure on me whatsoever,’ I answer.

‘Well you know, we’re getting to that age where changes are going to occur naturally. You’ve just been thrown in feet first. Hopefully things will settle given some time.’

‘I hope so,’ I say, ‘My libido has left the building and the times when we have tried intimacy it’s like being shagged by a cactus. My body doesn’t work like it used to and that makes me feel like I’m not a proper woman anymore. But, you know, I still feel we should keep trying  with the old sexy time. There’s a part of me thinks, if you don’t use it, you lose it.’ Mel nods and listens. ‘Lube is going to have to be my new best friend, dude.’ Mel laughs.  ‘I’ve got an appointment at the Menopause Clinic, but it isn’t till the end of November.’

‘I suppose that gives you time to notice any trends with your symptoms,’ Mel suggests, and I agree. She also suggests I watch ‘The Insiders’ Guide to the Menopause’ on the BBC iPlayer.

It’s 11.40am when we practically throw ourselves round the side of the large summit cairn seeking respite from the wind; I throw on my down jacket; I then accidentally throw hot soup over my legs as I unscrew the lid of Paul’s mega flask.

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Before Mel chomps on my tumour.
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Rescuing Mel’s mat before the wind carries it off.

South and east are the vast featureless plateaux of the Drumochtor and Gaick tops. To the northeast are Cairngorm summits. We, however, sit facing north to take in the view over Badenoch and Strathspey.

‘How symbolic,’ I say, as a solitary lump of pumpkin sploshes into Mel’s flask as I share the soup. I remind her that we shared hot chocolate on Beinn Mhanach at the start of this year, when I first discovered my lump. ‘And now, here we are, sharing soup. That lump of pumpkin is symbolic of my tumour,’ I tell her. She laughs. Then, for the first time today, we are properly silent. We are enjoying the sensation of the warm fluid as it makes its way down our gullets until Mel gurgles that she is chomping on my tumour. What’s in our mouths is spluttered everywhere as we erupt into hysterics.

We walk back down the mountain talking mainly about Game of Thrones and drawing comparisons between the characters and real people. ‘Winter is coming,’ I say in my best Sheffield accent.

Mel looks fixedly at me. ‘Winter is here!’ she corrects. I reflect on this at a personal level. Recently I have felt that I’ve been catapulted into the winter of my life.

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Cancer and the menopause have stripped me down. But talking things through with my friend has made me realise that I need to give myself a break. I have had a lot on my plate this year. I have to be patient with myself and be grateful for what I have got and not lament what is lost. I am where I am. It takes time to adjust to new situations, but I know that I can and I will because I’ve got Paul and we’ll get through this together.

Mel and I approach the gate that leads onto the path by the A9 and the day ends as it began. A white van spins past. The passenger side window is rolled down and some bloke shouts out to us, we’ve no idea what, and we laugh again.

Lots of women suffer the menopause in silence, but you don’t need to. There’s help out there, be confident, be strong and be heard. Talk to your GP or get a referral to the Menopause Clinic.

Any questions or comments? Feel free to get in touch.

Maca – might be a useful non-hormonal way to help ease menopausal side effects.

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Next blog: The Path to Recovery is Paved in Platinum, Protein and Pons (hill climbed, Beinn a’Chrulaiste at Glencoe)