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Cancer and the Menopause: It's not just about women getting older

By Barbara Wilson, Working With Cancer.

So, here’s the thing.

I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005 and because of my diagnosis had to give up 10 glorious years of being on HRT. That was not unusual for my kind of breast cancer which is oestrogen receptive. Accordingly, I resigned myself to coping with the menopause again (I had already experienced some hot flushes and sleepless nights before going on HRT) as well as the after effects of cancer treatment. I realise now that I was a victim of my mother’s generation of ‘just get on with it or give up work’ mentality (and just to be clear my mother who was widowed in her early 50s (in the midst of the menopause) worked until she was 70).

What I find interesting – and frankly that is an understatement - is how little attention health professionals and society as a whole has given to the fact that many women, and many men undergoing hormone therapy for their cancer, will experience menopausal symptoms as a result of cancer treatment. And of course, many young women will experience it far too soon and suffer enormous emotional distress as well as physical discomfort as a consequence.

When I was being treated for cancer, menopausal symptoms were dismissed as just yet another side effect of treatment; at least the cancer had been caught early and I had a good chance of living at least 10 years (although in my view at the age of 54, what was then a 65% chance of living 10 years was not nearly good enough – “But what about the other 35%?” I asked).

The menopause, as many now acknowledge, is not something to dismiss as a joke that ‘older ladies’ experience. When you add cancer on top of that, it really is no laughing matter. As a professional woman working in the City, it was a nightmare trying to cope with the impact of cancer treatment: muscle pain caused by the medication, peripheral neuropathy, fatigue, and then on top of that the hot flushes, foggy headedness and the emotional highs and lows resulting from the menopause, made even worse by the treatment and medication…and, I’m sorry to say, my younger colleagues’ judgement.

So, what are the implications of this.

  • For employers: it’s important to be aware of this issue, to acknowledge it and make workplace adjustments that enable women and men to cope with the impact of cancer and menopausal symptoms. And when it comes to running programs, webinars or networks about the menopause as many companies now do, please do not ignore the impact of medical treatments that cause an early menopause or heighten its impact. The menopause is not just about women getting older.

  • For health professionals including Occupational Health Advisors: please do not dismiss menopausal symptoms. Acknowledge them and provide us with practical strategies that alleviate them. There are many options for those that cannot or should not take HRT: take a look at Dr Liz Riordan’s book ‘The Complete Guide to Breast Cancer book and 'The Complete Guide to Menopause' by Dr Annice Mukherjee.

  • For pharma companies: please consider quality of life after active cancer treatment when developing new drugs, and work to develop drugs that do not heighten or prolong menopausal symptoms.

  • For employees: please remember that you can request reasonable adjustments to your working conditions to alleviate or at least mitigate what you are experiencing, given these arise or have been heightened by your cancer treatment, and you can request them at any point before, during or after your cancer treatment.

For more information and advice visit


About Barbara

Barbara is a senior HR professional with over 40 years’ experience. Her previous roles were Group Head of Strategic HR at Catlin Group Ltd, Deputy Head of HR at Schroders Investment Management, and prior to that Chief of Staff to the Group HR Director at Barclays. Before joining Barclays she was a senior management consultant at Price Waterhouse. She began her career as an HR professional at London Regional Transport after taking a degree in history at Cambridge.

In 2005, after being diagnosed with breast cancer and based on her professional and personal experience, Barbara set up a group with the aim of helping those of working age affected by cancer to return successfully to work. The group was the first to develop guidelines on work and cancer for HR professionals, line managers, employees and carers.

From 2008 to 2010 she was asked to chair a major element of the NHS/Macmillan 5- year Cancer Survivorship strategy, leading a multidisciplinary team developing ‘work and cancer’ support tools for employees, employers, carers and health professionals.

In 2014 after attending the School for Social Entrepreneurs, Barbara launched Working With Cancer® as a Social Enterprise providing coaching, training and consultancy services to employers, employees, colleagues affected by cancer, carers and health professionals.

Barbara speaks about ‘work and cancer’ at various conferences and events, and is an active blogger. She is dedicated to improving work and cancer services throughout the UK and Europe.

Barbara is a member of the CIPD, trained as a coach at Ashridge Management College, and is married with two sons.

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