Today (18 October) is World Menopause Day, and October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. Both campaigns are international initiatives to raise awareness and emphasise the importance of providing support for those affected by either of these conditions. Here, Kirstie Williams, who is part of the Civil Service HR team, shares her experience of the menopause.
In March 2017, I was diagnosed with grade 3 breast cancer. But I was lucky, my prognosis was good.
During the following months I learnt just how important it was for me to see the positives, to approach things with humour and to be honest about my thoughts and fears.
Due to the type of cancer that I had, part of my ongoing treatment is to take medication that will stop my body producing certain hormones. As a consequence, this means that my body is being medically put through the menopause. I am 42. The drugs can't prevent my cancer from returning, unfortunately, but they might reduce the risk.
When I started treatment to prevent the cancer from returning, I knew nothing about the menopause, people just don’t seem to talk about it. Short of hearing my mum bemoaning the hot flushes, I was clueless. I certainly wasn’t prepared for everything that was about to happen.
The start of me taking this medication coincided with my return to work. It was only 4 months after my cancer treatment and I had been told it would take time to build myself back up.
Being back at work felt good. But about a month in, the hot flushes started. They didn’t just happen in the day, I was being woken by them six or seven times a night. But I understood this was part of the menopause, so I wasn’t unduly worried.
I also understood that I’d just returned to work after a year’s absence and it would take time to build up my confidence. So when I started experiencing a bit of memory loss, I put it down to my ‘rusty’ brain. Similarly, when I started forgetting what I was talking about half-way through a sentence, I thought it was just going to take a bit more time to get my ‘game-face’ back on.
But when I started to fall over my words and have difficulty articulating what was in my head I began to feel uncomfortable. Things were getting worse not better, and I didn’t know why. I started to retreat from speaking up in meetings in case I looked or sounded foolish; which then caused me to worry that I wasn’t performing well. When I started experiencing difficulty with pretty basic spelling on top of that I began to be concerned that it was something more serious.
Then, the anxiety attacks started. I had been warned that anxiety can often follow cancer treatment, but it hadn’t been part of my experience so far, so I didn’t understand what had changed.
During this time, I would regularly recount stories at work of my experiences of hot flushes on the train or emotional meltdowns over the washing up. But, I didn’t talk about what was going on in my head. I didn’t mention the brain fog or the anxiety attacks, because I just couldn’t get my head around them and I was embarrassed. I certainly didn’t know that they were all connected.
Shortly after this, a colleague shared some menopause guidance with me - and it was a genuine ‘lightbulb’ moment. Everything I had experienced was connected to the drop in hormone levels, even the brain fog! And it was highly likely that low resilience also caused by the hormone drop had paved the way for the increased anxiety I was experiencing.
Soon after this, I wrote to my line managers to share how I was feeling. I am lucky that I work in an environment where speaking up about your mental health is genuinely encouraged. I also printed a copy of the menopause guidance for my husband, presenting it as proof that I am ‘normal’ after all! And, I am pleased to say the response at work and home has been fantastic.
Not everyone feels comfortable to speak up - but most people, at some point in their life, will find themselves managing a dip in their mental or physical health and the two can often be connected. We have so many fantastic resources available across the Civil Service that even if you don’t feel happy talking to those around you, you can find support somewhere.
If I hadn’t shared my own experiences at work, albeit through some funny stories, I would never have come across the menopause guidance. This changed the way I felt about my own mental health.
Firstly, I’d like to thank Kirstie for sharing her hugely inspiring story. If you or someone you manage has been affected by any of the issues mentioned here, there are a range of resources and support available. For any health condition, it is important to listen and talk to those you manage about what support measures can help. The types of support will vary and need to be considered on a case-by-case basis. Further advice can also be obtained from Occupational Health, including any workplace adjustments required.
Civil Service HR have worked with the Cross Government Women’s Network to produce guidance on supporting staff experiencing the menopause - which forms part of the Managing Attendance Gateway. Please speak to your HR team or refer to your department’s policies and guidance to find out more.
Finally, I’d like to take this opportunity to highlight two new digital wellbeing services that were recently launched by the Charity for Civil Servants. All civil servants, past and present, can now access a wellbeing hub and an interactive chatbot via the Charity for Civil Servants website. Do check out the website for further information about these excellent resources.
Rupert McNeil, Government Chief People Officer