Women who have had cancer experience more frequent and severe hot flashes when going through menopause than women who have never had cancer, researchers reported on July 17. In spite of that condition, however, cancer survivors also experience less depression and better quality of life than women who haven’t had a cancer diagnosis.
In 2007, 6.3 million women in the U.S. were cancer survivors. As early and accurate detection and treatment improves, more people than ever before are living through cancer, making survivors’ issues all the more relevant. The current study, published in Menopause: The Journal of the North American Menopause Society, is the first to compare menopause-related health outcomes for women with and without a history of cancer in a large-scale, clinical setting.
Between January 2003 and November 2010, women’s health researchers from The University of Melbourne and The University of Western Australia collected data from women who visited two menopause clinics there. More than 900 cancer survivors and 150 women without cancer answered survey questions on their menopause symptoms, gynecological symptoms, and sexual and psychological functioning. For both groups, the median age was 51, and most women were married or in long-term relationships and had at least one child. The majority of women in the cancer group had a previous diagnosis of breast cancer (82%), 10.5% had a gynecological cancer, and the remainder had blood, lymph node, bone or colon cancer.
76% of cancer survivors reported recurrent hot flashes compared to 54% of women who had never had cancer, and their hot flashes were more likely to be severe or very severe. They were also significantly more likely to report 10 or more hot flashes within the past 24 hours of being surveyed.
The cancer survivors and women who had never had cancer reported about the same amount of sexual activity, and also had similar levels of vaginal dryness – another symptom of menopause. They differed, however, in their psychological functioning and quality of life scores – cancer survivors were less likely to have mood swings, irritability and sadness, and reported better social and family well being.
While the findings are noteworthy, there are a couple of important limitations to the study. First of all, the researchers were not able to collect data on body mass index, which has been found to be linked to risk for hot flashes. The study sample was also approximately 90% white, so it’s not clear if the results will extend to other ethnic groups.
Depression and anxiety are common in women who have recently been diagnosed with cancer, but most of the women in this study were many years past their initial diagnosis, and psychological symptoms have been found to improve over time. The researchers hypothesized that the cancer survivors’ well being could also be attributable to their strong social and emotional support networks.
Despite experiencing more persistent and troubling hot flashes, women who have had cancer are discouraged from taking hormonal supplements, as these could increase the likelihood that the cancer will recur. Treating severe menopausal symptoms in cancer survivors is therefore challenging, and the study authors write that more research must be done towards bringing them relief.