In our monthly column, senior writer and editor Adriana Ermter shares her personal experiences with breast cancer.
By Adriana Ermter
The only thing I miss about Tamoxifen is not getting my period.
I stopped taking my daily dose of Tamoxifen just shy of the two-year mark. I was supposed to take the hormone blocker for five years but the side effects, including multiple and intense night sweats, hourly hot flashes that left me dripping, zero short-term memory retention, debilitating joint pain, a sandpaper-like vagina and more had become unbearable. Still, I was nervous about possibly stopping for good, so I made a pros and cons list about remaining on Tamoxifen for the next doctor-prescribed three years. The cons ran down one full side of the foolscap paper. The pros featured just two items: reassurance of reducing the possibility of having a breast cancer recurrence and not getting my period.
The temporary pause
I presented my list to my oncologist and he agreed that my Tamoxifen-based symptoms were strangely escalating and not decreasing, as they should have been. We talked about the “good” parts of my cancer. How it had been Stage 1, excellent margins of flesh surrounding the lesion had been removed during surgery and my radiation treatment had been successful. We also talked about the negatives, like, how my cancer was in my armpit with a tail extending into my breast and that the cancer’s cells were 95 per cent estrogen and progesterone receptor positive. We also talked about the possibility that I was now perimenopausal and that this may be intensifying my Tamoxifen symptoms. In the end, we decided to press pause on my drug intake for six months to see if the break would provide us with the insight we needed. I stopped cold turkey that day.
Literally 24 hours later, all of the horrible Tamoxifen-induced symptoms I’d been having were replaced with a rush of hormones flooding my body. They made me feel and act like a high-strung teenager. It took about six weeks for my hormones to regulate to their pre-Tamoxifen state, but they did and it was like heaven…until I got my period.
Getting my period for the first time in almost two years was a shock, although realistically it shouldn’t have been but, I was not prepared. That first day, I sat on the cold bathroom tile with a wad of toilet paper stuffed inside my underwear, as I rummaged through the cabinet beneath the sink. Seven tubes of Rimmel and Maybelline mascara, Q-Tips, four boxes of toothpaste, multiple jars of face cream, a curling iron, Velcro rollers, three containers of Bath & Body Works’ lemon, lilac and peppermint-smelling liquid soaps and two Ziplock bags stuffed with travel-sized toiletries piled onto the floor before my hands reached an old box filled with a handful of tampons and panty liners. I sighed in relief.
That relief was short-lived, though. My period was different; it had different requirements now. Pre-Tamoxifen, and for all of my adult life, my period had been easy with a capital E. It was like clockwork, especially when I was on the birth control pill and had a normal to light flow that lasted for about four of its seven days. I didn’t even need tampons during the last three days and could usually get away with wearing a panty liner. Not any more.
A new period
Now, my period’s flow is regular and sometimes heavy-ish for the first four days. I have to carry extra tampons with me wherever I go. On the days leading up to my period I’m bloated, constipated, constantly hungry and my boobs swell and are sore, possibly because they’re C cups now courtesy of the Tamoxifen weight. I also get headaches and I’m grumpy. All of this is new for me, and I don’t like it. Over the years, tons of my friends complained about these types of period precursors, but I’d only ever experienced salty-sweet cravings every third month and they were quickly cured with a bag of dill pickle, salt and vinegar or sour cream and onion-flavoured chips and a bowl of cookie dough ice cream. This? This is something else.
The regular sized tampons I’d previously used didn’t do the trick anymore, so I ended up test-driving a variety of options. The Super-plus ones were horrible and I used them for one period only. The enormous amount of effort each application required (in both directions too) was coupled with a persistent nagging discomfort.
Next, I tried the Supers, which only felt super comfortable on day one; every day afterwards they hurt going in and coming out. For my third try, I opted for small Compact tampons. They made sense, as they conveniently tucked into a pocket or inside a purse. But they were also a bugger to use and I pinched my skin every time I inserted and removed one. Finally, after five months of trial and error I settled on a Sports version and stopped stalking Shoppers Drug Mart’s aisles. By that time though, I’d also hit the six-month mark and was due back on Telehealth with my oncologist to make a final decision about my relationship with Tamoxifen.
The hard stop
When my oncologist and I regrouped, I knew I never wanted to take Tamoxifen again.
Yes, I fear my choice could potentially lead to a breast cancer recurrence. Should that happen, God forbid, I know it will be hard to forgive myself for not sticking it out with the drug. But right now it’s harder to ignore that I want to, my body needs to, stop taking Tamoxifen for good. Because I’ll take having a monthly period and feeling and behaving like my true self over living the half-life I had been before.
No, this doesn’t mean, I’ve come to terms with having my period again and all that comes with it. Despite having pre-period hunger pangs and sore boobs to help warn me, I still can’t clock its exact arrival. So if I’m rushing out the door or not paying attention to the signs, I pay for it. And don’t even get me started on how much I feel like a beached whale for a solid week every single month, never mind the carbs I consume while I’m zoned out watching Netflix. Somehow though, it’s still better than being on the drug.
Halting Tamoxifen was, is, the right choice for me, right now. It doesn’t mean I’ll feel this way forever. But for now, in this moment, I’m happy with my decision. Because that’s what this is, a personal choice, supported by my oncologist. I’ve chosen a clearer mind, a sweat-free sleep, an unbroken sleep, the ability to sprint up and down my stairs and so much more. It hasn’t turned back the time to my pre-cancer self or made my life perfect. I mean, I still get my period, but being off of Tamoxifen feels like a win and right now, that’s all I need.
Adriana Ermter is a multi award-winning writer and editor. Her work can be read in Living Luxe, Figure Skater Fitness and IN Magazine, as well as online at 29Secrets.com, RethinkBreastCancer.ca, Popsugar.com and AmongMen.com. The former Beauty Director for FASHION and Editor-in-Chief for Salon and Childview magazines lives in Toronto with her two very spoiled rescue kittens, Murphy and Olive. You can follow Adriana on Instagram @AdrianaErmter
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