IN CORONATION Street tonight, 20-year-old Faye Windass will discover a devastating truth – that she has Premature Ovarian Failure, or early menopause.
Tellingly, this had never appeared among the potential causes put forward by viewers to explain her recent false pregnancy, highlighting just how little is known about the condition.
Menopause usually kicks in when women are in their mid-late 40s and early 50s.
Premature Ovarian Failure (POF), or Premature Ovarian Insufficiency (POI) as it’s more widely known, is used to describe menopause in your teens, 20s, 30s, and early 40s when hormone levels change, the ovaries no longer produce eggs, and periods stop.
Essentially, it’s the end of a woman’s reproductive years, so it can understandably feel catastrophic for teenagers and young women who are diagnosed with the condition.
According to the Daisy Network (daisynetwork.org), a charity that provides POI support and advice, it affects approximately one in every 100 women under the age of 40, one in 1,000 women under 30 and one in 10,000 under 20.
In the majority of women (90%), there’s no underlying cause.
In other instances, auto-immune disease, genetics, infection, surgery, or cancer treatment can be identified as a contributing factor.
But whatever the reason, the signs and symptoms are often, but not always, the same as ‘normal’ menopause, such as irregular (or no) periods, infertility, hot flushes, and night sweats, palpitations, low sexual libido and fatigue.
Being frank, it’s not the sexiest subject, which is undoubtedly why menopause was pretty much considered taboo until recently.
The Sun’s Fabulous Menopause Matters Campaign – backed by celebs including Davina McCall and Lisa Snowdon – has championed women going through the menopause, fought for their rights in the workplace and to have HRT costs slashed.
As for early menopause, it’s difficult to recall a time it’s been openly discussed.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a storyline about early menopause.
“I didn’t even realise you could go through the menopause so young, so I hope it raises awareness, and remind people they’re not alone,” says actress Ellie Leach, 21, who plays Faye.
Although Ellie first heard about the storyline months ago, Faye and her partner Craig Tinker (Colson Smith) are only just coming to terms with the news on screen.
“Faye’s shocked and upset. She realises she’s not going to have the life that she thought she would by having more (of her own genetic) children,” explains Ellie, referencing the child Faye gave away in her teens.
“What’s great about the storyline is we’re getting different people’s perspectives because it’s not just about Faye, but also the people around her.
“I hope it helps family members and partners, as well as people going through early menopause, and for people to feel like they can speak openly about it.”
Kim Bennet, 32, from Falkirk, Scotland, who was diagnosed with POI at the age of 16, is keen to spread the word.
“I got my first period at 15, and the periods lasted regularly for seven or eight months and then stopped abruptly.
“At the time I panicked. This was before Google was regularly used, and even though I was still a virgin, I thought I could be going through the next immaculate conception.
“I waited nine months to tell my parents, and then we got the doctor involved,” recalls Kim, who was referred to a specialist for further blood tests and an ultrasound.
“A few weeks later, I was called into the specialist’s office.
“I remember the doctor telling my mum, ‘Your daughter has premature menopause. We refer to this as Premature Ovarian Failure’.
“That was how I was told I was infertile,” says Kim, who hadn’t heard of the condition before, and neither had her parents.
“I remember thinking this is going to make life easier as there aren’t going to be any surprise pregnancies.
“It was easier to think about that, instead of the fact I couldn’t have children, and the long-term implications on your body and your health, including your mental health.”
Kim was advised to go on to HRT (hormonal replacement therapy) until she was of an average menopausal age “to keep my body healthy.”
“The one I found suited me best is called Kliofem.
“I take this alongside a small dose of antidepressants, which help with any mood swings, but there isn’t a one-size-fits-all, so it’s worth trialling a few until you find what suits you,” suggests Kim, who admits she’s relieved to be in a relationship with someone who has a child from a previous relationship and doesn’t want any more children.
“I hope anyone who gets this diagnosis knows there are many other ways to become a parent and your impact on the world is not determined by your fertility.
“Don’t let the diagnosis take over your life and if you’re ever struggling, reach out for help or talk about it.
“Someone else has probably been where you are now and can support you.”
As opposed to Kim’s diagnosis 16 years ago, Jodie Caveney, 26, a mum-of-one from Manchester, was only diagnosed with POI five months ago.
“I was 25 when I decided to try for another baby, but after stopping contraception my periods never started again.
“Shortly after, I began suffering with hot flushes, fatigue, night sweats, no sex drive, and aching joints, so I went to see the doctor who organised blood tests,” she says.
The results showed Jodie had high FSH (follicle-stimulating hormone) levels and she was referred to a gynaecologist who diagnosed her with POI.
“I’ve told my close family and friends, none of whom had heard of POI before, but honestly, I’ve found it humiliating to tell people.
“It makes me feel like an old woman.
“I’m incredibly lucky to have had a child, but I’m also grieving for a child I’ll never get,” says Jodie, who’s tried one type of HRT so far “but it doesn’t seem to be working for me”.
“It’s great Coronation Street is raising awareness about this disorder.
“It will show people who suffer they’re not the only ones and help ease the embarrassment.”
Dr Paula Briggs, a consultant in reproductive health at Liverpool Women’s NHS Foundation Trust, has been assisting the soap’s scriptwriters for over a year.
She keen for people to know what happens if they’re displaying menopausal symptoms before it’s expected.
“Below the age of 40, it’s recommended they have two blood tests about six weeks apart to determine the FSH (follicle-stimulating hormone) level.
“In people who have POI, these levels would be high (over 30 iu/l) because the hormone is trying to make the ovary produce an egg but there aren’t any, or they’re not good quality, so the levels go up in an attempt to make that happen.
“That’s combined with a low oestrogen level.”
In terms of management, patients can use a combined hormonal contraceptive option (pill, patch, or ring) if eligible, or HRT, which is used to relieve symptoms and help prevent debilitating disorders such as osteoporosis and heart disease.
“Quite often women can feel well, so don’t want any form of treatment, and you can’t make them have it, but it’s making sure they understand that if they don’t, they could end up with osteoporosis as low oestrogen levels impacts bone health.
“Also, women need to be aware of the fertility services available to them, and how pregnancy can be achieved by using a donor egg.
“You might get women who don’t want children but having that option taken away is extremely difficult,” says Paula.
“My hope from this storyline is that it raises awareness of a condition that’s rarely discussed because if your periods stop, and you’re not using hormonal contraception, it’s not normal and should be investigated to prevent long-term damage.”
For more information and support, visit daisynetwork.org.
Coronation Street airs on ITV on Monday, Wednesday and Friday
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