October is widely acknowledged as National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but did you know it is also National Menopause Awareness Month? These two conditions and osteoporosis are intimately connected through hormonal systems in a woman’s body.
“In women with breast cancer, we often see them put through menopause early or instantly because they’re placed on estrogen inhibitors during cancer treatment,” explained Dr. Mel. “Cancer treatments often deprive women of essential hormones, taking them down to low or nonexistent levels. Estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone are essential sex hormones for bone health and for maintaining vulvovaginal tissue, which can have grave impacts on women’s relationships, and overall health and quality of life when they are deprived of them.”
During Breast Cancer Awareness Month, World Menopause Day is held every year on October 18. This year’s focus is bone health. As women age, their hormone levels begin to fluctuate and eventually decrease. Because these hormones help to maintain bone health, decreased hormone production puts them at risk for bone loss, or osteoporosis. Many women undergoing treatment for breast cancer have their hormones suppressed, forcing them to enter menopause early, and increasing their osteoporosis risk.
For more than 15 years, Dr. Melissa (Mel) Irvine, DNP, has channeled her experience and knowledge to help women and couples understand the important role hormones play in sexual wellness, relationships, health and quality of life. She believes hormone replacement therapy works to maintain those special tissues, even in women with female cancers, but this practice is feared by some because of estrogen’s role in fueling some of those cancers. It’s important for women to know that hormones do not cause cancer.
“When I draw their labs, the levels of estrogen are so low there’s nothing really reflected there,” explains Dr. Mel. “Vulvovaginal hormone therapy would not impact cancer in these women, because the replacement is local and has little to no absorption throughout the body but rather works direct to maintain their vaginal tissue health. The tissue is so greedy for the hormone that it just works on that area of the body. If we don’t do anything about it, as women age, all of that anatomy will atrophy and disappear; and, depending on severity, it can take years to reverse this damage.”
Not only can deterioration affect a woman’s intimate relationship with her partner and her emotional and mental state, but it can also lead to physical decline in the form of repeated infections, some life-threatening. Maintaining the integrity of these tissues is imperative to sexual, mental and physical wellbeing – the overall health of every woman.
“Atrophy will affect parts of a woman’s anatomy which is protective of our urinary tract,” explains Dr. Mel. “As a woman undergoes cancer treatments, or women in general start aging, they become more susceptible to bladder infections if the health of these tissues is not maintained. Once a bladder infection crosses into the bloodstream, sepsis can occur. Sepsis is one of leading causes of death in hospitals and accounts for 1 in 5 deaths worldwide. So many women could be saved by simply explaining hormone replacement therapy to them.”
It’s not always about aging. Some women can experience hormonal imbalance as early as their twenties due to birth control’s effects on hormonal pathways. Dr. Mel advises women to seek the help of a sexual medicine expert as soon as they experience symptoms of decreased energy and libido, irritability, new anxiety and depression, hair loss, dryness, pain with intercourse or generalized discomfort, frequent bladder infections and changes in orgasm.
“Gynecologists will perform paps and pelvic exams, but an expert in sexual medicine will measure the degree of atrophy and treat accordingly. It’s not something women should just accept after beating cancer, or as they age,” said Dr. Mel. “Every woman will have to manage hormonal fluctuations at different points in their lives. Menopause, and other hormone related conditions can be overwhelming at times, but it doesn’t have to be. We need to do more to provide women options as they go through hormonal transitions to help them make informed decisions and empower them to achieve optimal health and wellbeing.”
Dr. Mel sees patients through Revitalize Health Clinic and Spa, 14320 Metropolis Ave, in Fort Myers. For more information, or to schedule an appointment, please visit drmelirvine.com, or call 239-351-5663.