Q&A with Helen Kemp, editor of Surgical Menopause: Not Your Typical Menopause

Published on 8 April, Surgical Menopause: Not Your Typical Menopause is a collection of women’s personal stories about surgical menopause. For editor Helen Kemp, it’s the book she wishes had been around for her to read prior to her own surgical menopause at the age of 41.

The book also features views from menopause specialist GP Dr Jane Davis, and specialist nurse Hazel Hayden, as well as a section on ‘what now’? with info on a whole raft of approaches to navigating menopause.

Helen spoke to Hysterical Women about the experiences in the book, and the worrying lack of support facing too many women in surgical menopause.

SG: How did your own experience of surgical menopause affect you and, from curating the experiences of other women, what do you feel are the most common themes?

HK: My own experience of surgical menopause was profoundly life changing. It shifted my entire outlook on life, it changed my relationships, both with myself and others, and it abruptly curtailed my career. In the aftermath of my surgery, I had a breakdown and almost took my own life. Yet I didn’t link any of the myriad of symptoms to my surgery. Primarily because I lacked awareness.

I thought I would bounce back after 6-8 weeks of rest and recuperation, and that didn’t happen. Based on comments made by my surgeon and others, I had an unrealistic expectation of my recovery trajectory, and my failure to meet numerous milestones merely added to my sense of distress. For the first three years after surgery, I lurched from one crisis to another, as seemingly baffling symptom after symptom popped up.

I have just passed the 8th anniversary of my surgery, and it’s only been in the last 6-12 months that I have truly started to feel well, both emotionally and physically. Perhaps I am experiencing the feelings of post-menopausal zest that I’ve read about. Either way, I have energy, I am more motivated, and I feel more balanced and emotionally stable than I have ever felt.

My experience is far from unique and,  as I worked on the book, various themes came to the fore – amongst them:

  • The worrying lack of support in the acute post-operative period. Having any organ removed is pretty major surgery, and yet many of us left hospital with no follow up appointment.
  • The resourcefulness of women, as well as their generosity of spirit and a determination to help others avoid some of the same pitfalls they themselves encountered.
  • The importance of knowing our own bodies, as well as the need to advocate for ourselves and to do our own research. I believe my generation were typically taught not to question those in positions of authority and/or power. Learning that not only do we need to question, but that it is vital to question those experts who make decisions about a course of treatment that will significantly impact our lives, can be liberating and empowering. It gives us back our voice.

How do experiences of surgical menopause differ from going through a natural menopause, and why did it feel important to create a book specifically for those experiences?

It’s sudden, and I believe that can make the experience quite brutal. I appreciate that’s an emotive word, but the shock of the actual surgery – which, let’s face it, is in one sense quite an invasive assault on the body – combined with an associated reduction in hormones, can leave women reeling and confused.

I felt it important to create a book specifically about the experiences of those of us in surgical menopause because surgical menopause is different, and the spectrum of challenges it creates are subtly different. I felt that needed to be recognised. Partly by way of raising awareness, partly also by way of acknowledging each woman’s individual voice.

I’m not suggesting surgical menopause is inherently any harder than either natural or chemical menopause. There is room in a compassionate world for all experiences to be honoured, and the book is a reflection of just some of those experiences. Personally, I know that writing can be therapeutic. We start to heal when our stories are told in safe spaces, and I wanted to provide a space in which women could share their individual narratives.

How did you go about selecting the range of voices and experiences to include?

It was important for me that the book included 12 voices. Each voice represents one of each of the final 12 months a woman would have experienced in the lead up to a natural menopause. It could be argued that our surgeries gave us an element of choice over when we went through menopause. We got to decide our ‘day of menopause’, whereas those going through a natural menopause have the added complexity of uncertainty. They may go 10 or 11 months without a menstrual period, only to have a bleed. I can only imagine how frustrating that might be.

I wanted to include a range of different reasons for surgery – i.e. as part of cancer treatment, as part of treatment for PMDD and/or endometriosis, for example. It was also important to include the different types of surgery – for example, laparoscopic, as well as open abdominal surgery. In one sense, those of us who ended up having open abdominal surgery had a very visible reminder as well as proof to others, if you like, of the extent of the surgery. By contrast, for women undergoing laparoscopic surgery, whilst their external scars may be minimal, the internal surgical work was nonetheless similarly extensive.

Given that, when it comes to menopause, there is no one size fits all approach, I felt it vital to include a variety of different approaches to dealing with life after surgery. Some women wanted to take HRT, others didn’t, some couldn’t, and some were not even offered the option of taking it. It’s a very individual choice, but it’s important that it is a choice – an informed choice –and one made on the basis of accurate, fact-based evidence.

What did you learn in the course of editing the book? Did anything surprise you?

Editing the book was an incredibly humbling experience. Women trusted me with their stories, and that came with a responsibility to edit the content in a way that truly honoured each woman’s individual journey. At times I felt almost overwhelmed by that responsibility.

For the reader, they may ‘just’ be stories, but for each of the 12 contributors, the chapters are a window into very personal and typically private aspects of their lives. I learnt that women are even stronger and more determined than I’d ever appreciated, and personally I learnt I was more capable than I ever thought.

Not Your Typical Menopause is my second book, but my first as editor and contributor. It’s also the first book where I’ve put my name to the content, and that has provoked an element of anxiety. I typically prefer to avoid attention. However, nothing changes if we change nothing, and I knew in order to change the landscape for the women who follow behind, someone had to step forward and publish the book I wish had been available for me prior to my own surgical menopause. For me to simply lament the lack of helpful information but then do nothing about it sat uncomfortably with me.

I’d like to say I was surprised to learn how often women struggle with all aspects of their hormonal health, but unfortunately, I wasn’t. Neither was I surprised at how often women have their experiences invalidated. The fact that previous generations didn’t speak openly about their experiences is not indication that an issue never existed – or, to put it in more simple terms, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

What do you hope readers take away from it?

I hope readers are left with the sense that they are not alone; there will always be someone else out there who knows and understands exactly what you are going through. Very few human experiences are entirely unique. The key is to find your tribe, share your experiences openly, stay connected and know that with the right help and support it is possible to move forward after a surgical menopause and thrive.

You can find Helen on Twitter @SurMenoNYTM

Order Surgical Menopause: Not Your Typical Menopause from Amazon