Emily Herstein
The Aging Well Issue

How a Broken Elbow Fixed Other Aspects of My Health

If you could reduce your risk of cancer, you would, right? That's exactly what I did when I underwent surgical menopause at age 42 due to my increased risk of ovarian cancer.

At this time, bone health was the last thing on my mind. But it would soon become my focus after discovering early menopause affected me in ways I didn't expect.

My Choice to Undergo Surgical Menopause

My story starts in 2017 when I was being treated for two benign tumors: One in my brain, followed by one in my neck.

Even though we were pretty sure the tumors weren’t genetic, my healthcare provider and I discussed having genetic testing done just to be sure. I knew it was the right call because I have a family history of BRCA gene mutations, which can put you at increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer. I had watched my aunt battle ovarian cancer for 10 years and eventually pass away from it. I was committed to taking steps to reduce my risk.

I began seeing a specialist twice a year for breast cancer screenings, but ovarian cancer is harder to detect. Because of how aggressive it is, it’s often not found until Stage III or later. That's why I chose to have my ovaries removed once I was done having children. This would help protect me from ovarian cancer, but it also put me immediately into menopause. What I didn’t realize was how many other challenges it would bring.

When you have your ovaries removed, your body can no longer produce estrogen. Because of my BRCA gene, hormone replacement therapy wasn’t an option for me, so I would have to face the side effects of menopause head-on. These can include:

  • Hot flashes
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Mood changes
  • Weight gain
  • Increased risk of heart disease
  • Reduced bone density

How Menopause Affected My Bones

There is a direct connection between estrogen and bone health.

For women who go through menopause—especially early menopause—your bone density can decrease, sometimes to dangerous levels. One day after my surgery, I took a little fall while I was ice skating with my daughter. Even though I didn’t land that hard, my elbow broke from the impact. I was sure it shouldn’t have broken so easily, so I spoke with my healthcare provider, who arranged a bone density test.

I found out that I have osteopenia, which means my bones are weaker than they should be, putting me at an increased risk of fractures and breaks as I age.

The diagnosis was scary, but it also inspired me to take steps to protect my health. I’d chosen to go through menopause to increase my longevity, and I was determined not to let the side effects get the best of me. I started taking a calcium supplement and exercising regularly to strengthen my muscles and prevent future bone fractures. Between that and watching what I ate, I also lost weight, which can help offset the increased risk of heart disease that comes with menopause.

Being able to inform myself has enabled me to make the necessary lifestyle changes to increase my longevity.

Even though I couldn’t control my genetics, I felt empowered to put my mind and my body to work to create the healthiest future I could for myself and my daughter. I’m lucky to have a very good relationship with my primary healthcare provider and my OBGYN. I’ve been able to ask them questions and have frank conversations about the issues I’m going through. Being able to inform myself has enabled me to make the necessary lifestyle changes to increase my longevity.

What I’ve Learned

Now that some of my friends are going through menopause, they’ve started asking me questions about it. Whether you’re going through it at age 40 or 60, my advice is always the same: It’s never too early to start being proactive about your health and prevent problems down the road.

Talk to your primary healthcare provider or your gynecologist. Consider having a baseline bone density test so you can know your starting point and be prepared to make a plan. Make sure you’re getting enough calcium and exercising regularly. Most of all, don’t be afraid to be open about what you’re going through.

So many women don’t know about the side effects of menopause or how to prepare for them. I hope to change that by sharing my story and encouraging other women to take charge of their experiences as I did. By advocating for yourself and making simple lifestyle changes, you can counteract the side effects of menopause and enjoy a healthier future.

By Emily Herstein
Emily Herstein is a brain cancer survivor and financial planner for women.