A dental hygienist forced into early menopause by cervical cancer treatment at just 32 felt isolated from friends and feared for her sanity, saying “no one really understood” what she was going through.
Mum-of-one Sophie Davies, 33, was diagnosed with cervical cancer at her second ever smear test when she was just 29 in late 2017, after putting the appointment off for six months, due to her pregnancy.
When less drastic options proved insufficient, Sophie needed a radical hysterectomy in December 2020 – surgery to remove her uterus and both ovaries – which threw her into a surgically induced menopause, with an instant barrage of difficult symptoms, aged 32.
Sophie, who lives in Ironbridge, Shropshire, with her photographer fiancé Edward Bagnall, 39, and their daughter Evelyn, four, said: “My consultant made me aware that losing my ovaries would put me into surgical menopause.
“I knew the science, but I wasn’t prepared for the reality of being in my early 30s and being in menopause. I just had no concept of how much it would impact me.”
Another devastating factor was that having a full hysterectomy meant she would only have one child and not the brood of children she had hoped to watch growing up and becoming as close as she is to her three siblings.
She said: “I’m so close to my siblings. I really wanted that bond for Evelyn. Knowing it would never happen was crushing.”
As her first smear test at 25 had been clear, cancer was the furthest thing from Sophie’s mind when she attended her delayed appointment as a young new mum.
And she was stunned when she was invited to a follow-up colposcopy investigation and informed she probably had cancer – with the terrifying diagnosis being confirmed after a biopsy.
Just 22 when the HPV vaccine – used to protect against forms of the human papilloma virus most likely to put women at risk of of developing cervical cancer – was introduced for under 18s, she now believes this could have stopped her developing the disease.
She said: “I think it’s fantastic now that the HPV vaccine is widely available to both boys and girls. It’s likely it could have prevented me having cervical cancer.
“I so vividly remember saying to the consultant, ‘How do we stop this happening to my daughter?’ He said, ‘Just make sure she gets the HPV vaccine. That’s the best chance of cervical cancer being eradicated in her lifetime.'”
As the cancer was in its early stages, Sophie did not need chemotherapy or radiotherapy and initially opted in April 2018 for a trachelectomy operation – where the upper third of her vagina, lower third of her womb and full cervix were removed – leaving her with the ability to fall pregnant and carry a child.
She explained: “It worked in that ever since that point I have been cancer-free. But I kept having recurrent infections in my womb.
“After a couple of years of infections and operations to keep removing the infected tissue, my doctor said I needed a full radical hysterectomy.”
She added: “It was crushing as I’d always wanted Evelyn to have a sibling. I know there’s no bond like it.”
Heartbroken that she would never again fall pregnant or carry a child, Sophie agreed to the procedure.
She spent a week recovering in hospital in December 2020 and said it was then that her thoughts turned to the realities of being in menopause.
She said: “I was looking forward to being discharged, as I couldn’t wait to get home, but I kept mentioning that no one had said anything about HRT.”
Sadly, Sophie says she was discharged without discussing the menopause or HRT – hormone replacement therapy – and felt unsure of what to expect, as she was plunged into a world of difficult symptoms.
She said: “I had hot flushes but they were the least of my worries. I knew that was menopause.
“What I couldn’t understand was this sudden terrible insomnia. I was trying to carry on as normal, but I felt really scared all the time.
“I was drastically, deeply depressed. I was arguing with Ed, snapping at Evelyn. I’d just take myself off to bed in the middle of the day to cry. I couldn’t understand it.
“I thought there must be something seriously wrong with me and that I was
having a breakdown.”
Sophie was put on HRT, but did not feel any better and, after finding it too difficult to access NHS mental health services, in spring 2021, she paid £100 for a private appointment with a menopause specialist – a decision she describes as “the best thing I ever did.”
She said: “The specialist talked to me in such depth about what the menopause was, what the surgical menopause was, what it actually meant to be oestrogen and testosterone deficient in my early 30s as opposed to in your 60s.”
Discovering that, according to her specialist, her HRT levels were more suited to a woman twice her age, the specialist also wrote to her GP recommending the dosage be doubled.
She said: “After that, I felt so much better.”
But, looking back on her first five months after the hysterectomy, when she was plunged into a chemical menopause with a far lower dose of HRT, she says it was one of the most difficult times in her life.
She said: “As a 32-year-old woman with a young child, I was at the busiest time of my life.”
Sophie added: “It’s not like I was much older and thinking of retiring. I was working full time, running a home, looking after a baby and facing menopause.
“I just couldn’t cope with all the things everyone else does at my age as well.”
Finding herself unable to keep up with her busy schedule and manage her symptoms, Sophie reduced her full-time job to three days a week last year.
She has also felt alienated from some of her friends by her experience, saying: “I am lucky in that I have some really, really good friends.
“Others have said they would be there for me, but really they weren’t. My friendship circle has drastically reduced.”
In part, Sophie believes this is because she hit a massive milestone at a much younger age than expected and that no one in her peer group related to her menopausal difficulties.
She said: “I am very open and there are things I’d normally talk to my friends about like using lube that I haven’t, as they just won’t understand.
“My older female relatives are wonderful, but their menopause was nothing like mine.
“What I’ve experienced wasn’t gradual. It was a sudden, drastic change in my mental state. For me it was like someone switched off a light overnight when I had my surgery.
“Nothing was natural. Getting my oestrogen levels just so is a game I’ll play forever.”
“I don’t have anyone who truly understands. I don’t have anyone I can really turn to when it comes to talking about menopause things.”
Sophie turned to Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, the UK’s leading cervical cancer charity, where she was able to access medical advisers over email.
She said: “The girls at Jo’s Trust have always been my go to over the last four years with anything cancer related and beyond. I know they are always at the end of a phone. They’ve been my support network since day one.”
Due to a current national shortage of HRT – caused by more women asking to be prescribed it – Sophie is now being moved from the twice-daily gel she has been relying on to a patch.
Anxious about the change, she said: “I know now what life was like before. I can’t go back to that.”
Sophie added: “I don’t have hot flushes, my sleep isn’t too bad and my mood is better. Mostly, my symptoms are under control.
“It’s now just my anxiety which is an issue and not having access to HRT is really playing into that.”
For other young women going through cervical cancer and facing a chemical menopause, like she did, Sophie could not recommend strongly enough that they find support, so they do not face everything alone.
She said: “I would tell anyone going through this to reach out to Jo’s Trust or another support charity.
“Find your support network. As soon as you reach out to a charity, you get that sense of camaraderie from other women in your situation.”
For support or information about cervical cancer or cervical screening, visit Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust at www.jostrust.org.uk or call their free Helpline on 0808 802 8000