A Cruel Condition
Kristin Rhodes's life was on track. At 32, she had finished graduate school, and she and her husband had booked a vacation to Europe, where they hoped to conceive their first child. Rhodes, a nurse-practitioner, had gone off birth control pills to prepare. At a routine gynecological exam before the trip, a nurse told her she was pregnant. Rhodes was thrilled. But the next day, she learned there had been a mistake. She wasn't pregnant; she appeared to be in menopause.
"I didn't want it to be true," she says. Then she recalled that her menstrual cycle had recently gone from 36 to 112 days. She also felt overheated whenever she curled up with her husband to watch television. "I blamed it on our new velour couch," says Rhodes, now 38. "I now realize I was having hot flashes."
Previously referred to as "early menopause," premature ovarian failure (POF) affects up to 10 percent of women under 40, a lot more than the 1 percent usually cited by the medical literature.
"This disorder is not as uncommon as we thought," says Michelle Warren, MD, director of the Center for Menopause, Hormonal Disorders, and Women's Health at Columbia- Presbyterian/Eastside, a medical facility in New York City. Spontaneous POF -- meaning it's not caused by surgical removal of the ovaries, radiation, or chemotherapy -- is the main reason young women stop having periods. It strikes women during their prime reproductive years -- the average age of spontaneous POF is 31.
Doctors aren't sure what triggers POF. It might occur because a woman is born with fewer egg follicles than normal, or because the ones she has don't work properly. About 4 percent of women with POF may have an autoimmune problem in which their bodies "attack" the follicles.
Whatever the cause, the toll is high. Women must cope with a low libido and hot flashes, as well as osteoporosis; they also feel as though they have been robbed of their womanhood. Tara MacDonald, 26, of Honolulu, says she felt "like a fake woman" when she was diagnosed at 21. Not surprisingly, women frequently plunge into depression.
"It was like watching a train wreck and not being able to do anything," says Rhodes's husband, Dave, about her diagnosis. Rhodes says she collapsed into "gut-wrenching" sobs in the months following it.