When I was 13 doctors told me I'd been through the menopause; A growing number of young women are being robbed of their fertility early by premature menopause.. By Kelly Strange.
As her weight almost doubled in the space of just a few months, teenager Amanda Lewis had no idea what was happening to her body.
She felt bad tempered, emotional and suffered from hot flushes, something her friends seemed to know nothing about. And when her mum found her slumped and crying uncontrollably in her bedroom, the family knew something needed to be done.
It turned out that 13-year-old Amanda was in the throes of the menopause. And in fact, she'd been going through it since she was just 11.
Amanda is thought to be the youngest person in the UK to have gone through the menopause.
When diagnosed at 13, she was put on a course of HRT for two years. Amanda, now 24, explains: "Six months after I'd started my periods, they suddenly stopped. I really didn't think anything of it at first and just assumed they would return.
"Then, out of the blue, I started to put on a lot of weight and quickly ballooned from 8st to 15st in just a few months.
"I started suffering from hot flushes and my temper became really short. I couldn't understand what was happening to me.
"By the time I was 13, I was desperately miserable and Mum came home one night to find me sobbing in my bedroom. I was so emotional she just didn't know what to do with me. Worried sick, she dragged me to see the doctor the next day.
"When I told him I hadn't had a period in two years he sent me for tests. They checked for sickle cell anaemia, thyroid disease and loads of other things, but they all came back clear."
The doctors struggled to understand why she was experiencing these symptoms at such a young age.
"Then they checked my hormone levels and this time they had a positive result," says Amanda. "But none of them could believe what they'd found. I'd already gone through the menopause, even though I'd barely even started my periods.
"I was still only 13 and too young to understand what the doctors were saying. But one thing did stick in my mind - I would never have a family. Even at that age I was devastated.
"I'd only ever heard of women getting the menopause when they were much older. And while I hadn't ever considered having children, it seemed so unfair to have the option taken away so young.
"While my friends were enjoying a normal teenage life, I felt like a middle-aged woman."
Amanda had started going through the menopause 40 years earlier than the average age of 51. Until recently her case, and even less extreme examples, would have been considered a rarity.
In medical circles, it's widely accepted that just 1% of women suffer from unexplained premature ovarian failure (POF), where the menopause starts before the age of 40. However, a recent study suggests that 6% experience premature menopause.
Dance instructor Amanda says she wouldn't wish her experiences on anyone, let alone an entire generation. Doctors put her on a course of HRT, which she stayed on until she was 15. Since then she's been switching between that and the Pill to make sure she's getting everything her body needs.
Her partner, Chris Power, 28, has always been supportive, but the rarity of her condition has made it hard for her to grasp some of the more serious implications.
"I don't think people understand how all this affects you emotionally," she says. "You can't help thinking, 'why me?'.
"Looking back, I didn't really understand the long-term effects of my diagnosis - how could I at just 13? But in recent years, what with some of my friends having children, the implications are hitting me harder.
"When I was 20 I had a laparoscopy, which showed that my womb is healthy so it may be that I'll be able to carry using egg donation. At the moment I'm concentrating on my career but in the next few years it's an option I'll explore.
"If that fails, I'll look into adoption. I still see my future as being a mum - I hope I'm not disappointed." And although Amanda's case is very extreme, she's far from alone in going through the menopause earlier than usual.
Samantha Gibson's doctor told her she was going through the menopause at just 25.
With that one word - something she'd previously associated with middle-aged women who'd completed their families - all of her dreams for the future disappeared.
"I was devastated," says Samantha, 36, from Coventry. "But I was also relieved to finally know what was wrong with me. I'd felt like I was going mad."
Music promoter Samantha first started to think something might be wrong in her early 20s.
"I felt very sensitive and would burst into tears at the drop of a hat," she says. "My joints ached and I was beginning to develop painful 'clicky' hips that would often give way.
"My weight increased to 16st 7lb and I started suffering from hot flushes and night sweats.
"I went back and forth to the doctor but they blamed my erratic periods and joint pain on poor diet and the subsequent weight gain.
"He told me to come back in six months, then 12 months and then 18 months. I felt that they thought I was wasting their time.
"But the way I felt was ruining everything - my teens, early adulthood, my relationships and life in general. I didn't have a clue why I was feeling so emotional." By the time she hit 25, Samantha's periods had stopped completely.
"I went back to the doctor and asked to come off the Pill, which I'd been prescribed from the age of 13.
"He said that he didn't think it was a good idea and he gave me antidepressants instead.
"I didn't take his advice and got a second opinion from another doctor who did checks that explained everything - my periods, moods and painful joints due to osteoporosis."
"While on the one hand it was a relief to finally know what was wrong, I felt shocked, scared and very, very sad," she says. "I suddenly felt like my life had passed me by. I felt so empty.
"My doctor wasn't very sympathetic but in time - mainly due to my own investigations - I began to have a better understanding of what was happening to my body.
"I was put on hormone replacement therapy - my moods lifted and I've been far more stable.
"Now, 10 years on, I'm still menopausal and still on HRT.
But I'm looking to supplement it naturally.
"I'm enjoying my life with my husband Dale - who I've been with since my diagnosis.
"As my ovaries weren't producing any eggs - I'd been having 'phantom' periods that were triggered by the Pill for years - I'm unable to have children naturally."
But Samantha is learning to cope.
She says: "I'd always assumed children would be in my future.
"We've since discussed adoption and fostering but we decided that as I'm finally enjoying my life, why complicate things?
"Yes, I sometimes have a problem with a low libido and the osteoporosis causes me daily discomfort, but I can live with that.
"Having regular counselling sessions has helped."
What is premature menopause?
Premature menopause, also known as premature ovarian failure and early menopause, is defined as the onset of menopause before the age of 45.
There are many possible causes for its development, including autoimmune diseases, cancer treatment and family history, but for some women the causes can remain a mystery.
One of the more devastating side effects of premature menopause is infertility. A woman who's gone through premature menopause won't ovulate and so can't produce her own eggs any more. This means that her only hope is to use a donor egg to have a baby.
Women with untreated premature menopause are also at increased risk of developing osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, dementia, cognitive decline and Parkinson's disease.
Visit the British Menopause Society at www.thebms.org.uk or Daisy Network at www.daisynetwork.org.uk
What the experts say: London's Imperial College found a link with smoking, backing up earlier studies showing that chemicals in cigarette smoke can trigger egg cell death.
Another study found women with the highest levels of PCFs, chemicals found in food packaging, had the lowest levels of oestrogen in their blood.
And a malfunctioning thyroid or pituitary gland, both of which play a part in hormone production, may be another cause.
Genetics are believed to play a part, too. Dr Marilyn Glenville, a leading nutritionist specialising in women's health, believes another possible link is stress and poor diet.
She says: "My concern is that as we become more of a stress-driven, sedentary society - coupled with the 'ladette culture' of girls drinking more - we may be was looking at an epidemic of POF in years to come."
Some experts are calling for women to consider the latest findings before they delay starting a family as once egg production has stopped, the chances of stimulating the ovaries into producing more are low.
They also warn of a higher risk of heart disease, arthritis, osteoporosis, dementia and depression as well as a shorter life expectancy.
SYMPTOMS: Amanda was 11 when she started the menopause DEVOTED: Samantha and husband, Dale, know she can't have children naturally SHOCKING: Samantha was first diagnosed during her 20s HOPE: Amanda is determined to have a family