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'I went through menopause at 36. I'm ashamed by how much it winded me.'

The following is an excerpt from 27 Letters to My Daughter by Ella Ward, a story of what we inherit, and how we become ourselves. 

Life with a uterus is a life of bleeding. It is the uncertain beginning of bleeding; it is pretending we are not bleeding; it is the hushed cessation of bleeding. And it is the expectation that throughout we bleed, and smile. And smile, and bleed.

This is a letter about my bits, and the role my bits have played in my life. Which, I get isn’t what you may want from your mother, darling girl. Yet there will come a time when you are interested. When you do want to know. And that is what this letter is for.

When you’re being pursued by a pissed-off mountain lion, you don’t stop to worry about the blisters you might get running away. This is how it felt when I was told my cancer treatment would cause early menopause. I was sitting in my radiotherapist’s office having The Talk. The one in which they impress upon you how serious your cancer is, and how important your treatment is, and how there may be side-effects to that treatment.

We didn’t discuss the specifics in that appointment. Instead, we talked about the likelihood that I might die if I didn’t start treatment urgently. I was okay with this approach. I wasn’t thinking of the side-effects either. I was thinking of you, five years old, playground-bruised knees and a missing tooth, and how I would wrestle one hundred raging mountain lions if it meant I would be alive on the other side.

I was also pleased to be having this conversation with this particular specialist, because he had used the word 'vulva' and 'cervix' while maintaining eye contact. Which seems expected for a doctor, but, unfortunately, is not.


Not long before that, your father Tom and I were auditioning for my treatment team. It was like Australian Idol, but with more brochures and whispering. Earlier that week we had met a prospective radiotherapist in a glossy office. I stuck my hand out, ready to shake. He reciprocated, but held only the tips of my fingers. Some might say gently, but I was in a prickly mood (I’d just been diagnosed with cancer after all). I felt he was treating me like a fragile girl-doll with girl-cancers in my girl-body. It wasn’t a great beginning.

When we asked pointed questions, the specialist said my radiation treatment would feel like "a bad sunburn" and my pain "might get a little challenging". His manner creased my brow. It also set my advertising-attuned bullshit-meter dinging.

The doctor waved towards my PET scan on his computer screen, the multiple malignancies glowing white like a spider’s egg sacs. A scan that among other organs showed my ovaries, uterus and cervix. When he did so, he referred to them as, "Your... ahem... lady parts."

Oh dear. Tom could barely usher me out of the room before I started sputtering and gesticulating.

The next day we were with another specialist in another cancer department in another hospital. This is the one who made eye contact with me. He also used the correct terminology for my organs, which is a plus for a medical professional.

We asked the same questions, but he used different language. He told us the treatment and its side effects would be "brutal", and that hospitalisation for pain management would be "vital".


"By the time I finish with you, you’ll wish you’d never met me." Which is right, but wrong too – because he helped save my life.

Lesson #109: Trust your gut.

Two years after that treatment finished I received the call from my GP confirming I was 'in menopause'. Which sounds like a terrible place to be, at any time of day.

My daughter, I’m not proud to admit how winded I felt on hearing this news. Because enough time had passed since those mountain lion days. Those just-diagnosed days when the hollow fear of mortality allowed me to mean it when I said, "I don’t care what happens, just let me survive."

'What happens' was more tangible by the time I got that phone call. And menopause sounded disappointing and dusty. Maybe it’s my vanity, but the very word felt like someone had scrubbed out big chunks of my person. I felt less female, less powerful, less attractive, less strong. I just felt less.

Menopause feels like another badge I should proudly pin to my twenty-first century Equality Uniform. I am proud to call myself a feminist. But menopause? Menopause isn’t something discussed at the dinner table. Not even ours. I may be a woman who Instagrammed her bum cancer, but in the early days I could barely say the 'M' word aloud to your father without flinching. Because even in this time of growing enlightenment, I thought menopause needed to be suffered through.

Going through early menopause at thirty-six meant, much like the inducement of labour, I never knew what it felt like to naturally move into the next stage of my reproductive life. It hit me hard. I experienced hot flushes and night sweats like they should be named: 'scalding hives' and 'insomniac drenchings'. My belly became rotund in a way even pregnancy hadn’t reshaped. My skin, my hair, my mind: everything changed. Yet even then I – the person who seeks medical reassurance like others pop out for a coffee – dragged my feet to see the specialist.


Because I chalked the misery of every symptom up to vanity and flippancy. Instead of seeing a doctor, I asked myself questions.

'How could night sweats be life-threatening?'

'Why am I so pathetically obsessed with my newly round stomach?'

'Why is "gut" such an angry, ugly word?'

My period was something I got young: in 1992, at eleven years old. Which meant for twenty-five years I bled, cramped and clotted my way through a week in every month. I don’t miss my period. It was tedious, inconvenient, and – when we were trying to get pregnant – a monthly blot of failure on white toilet paper. Despite all this, having stashes of tampons in office drawers and moaning about monthly cravings anchored me in a demographic I felt comfortable in.

I left that demographic, and all it contained behind with thirty sessions of pelvic radiation. My little shrivelled ovaries: I picture them like sad raisins.

It’s acceptable to moan about periods because they’re something that almost half of us have for over half of our lives. A little flag of fertility that even if we don’t choose to wave, we might. Then why couldn’t I moan about menopause? Why so quiet?

Back in the antique years of the 1990s, Menstruation and Menopause were taught as the two bookmarks of ‘womanhood’. But in the time that has passed between my first period and your first school anatomy lesson, the world has opened up. Just a little, like a flower with an angle more light and a drop more water – something is growing. A quiet blossoming of awareness, support and understanding about gender, sexuality and identity, and how the physical self connects to all of this.


You as a nine-year-old seem to have a more profound understanding of these things than I did ten years ago. Which is wonderful. This is what improvement is all about. If my daughter – you – can understand that identity is not tied to physicality, then why can’t I? Why did the medical declaration of my menopause feel like such an attack on my womanhood? Why, my girl, was I so quiet?

Lesson #110: Menopause is a feminist issue.

I think it’s because to acknowledge menopause is to also acknowledge what it takes away. For some women, it asserts the absence of qualities we are meant to have, but mustn’t admit directly to coveting: youth, elasticity, composure, sexuality, tranquillity. To feel the loss of any of these is to reveal you enjoyed them in the first place. Which – in my experience – is the very opposite of how a serene woman must act. She ‘must’ inhabit youth and verve, but incidentally, rather than in an ardent way.

This woman must wear the jewels of femininity across her hands, wrists, and ears – but never be seen to admire them, to never be observed watching them dance and twinkle in the sun.

Ella Ward has worked in advertising for over twenty years. This means she has a proclivity for profanity and doesn’t respect punctuation. In 2018 she was hit with the cancer stick, which apart from being rather frightening also encouraged a foray into oversharing on Instagram, and then writing. Her words have been published in places like Lunch Lady, Mamamia and The Sydney Morning Herald. Ella lives in Melbourne, Australia, with her husband, child and too many animals. 27 Letters to My Daughter is her first book.


27 Letters to My Daughter, published by HarperCollins is out now, you can purchase it here.

Image: Good Reads.

You can follow Ella Ward on her Instagram and her website.

Feature Image: Mamamia/Instagram @_msellabella.

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