Going through menopause at 35 was worth it to beat cancer
The Liberty X singer had a hysterectomy to reduce her risk of developing ovarian cancer, which affects 7,000 women in the UK each year. She tells ADRIAN MONTI she has no regrets
WHEN Michelle Heaton gave birth to her second child Aaron Jay ( AJ) two years ago, she made a momentous decision. Her son was just 10 months old when the pop singer and TV star opted to have a hysterectomy in which her womb, cervix, ovaries and fallopian tubes were removed.
Although she admits it was a “drastic” choice, Michelle was eager to have the operation – even though it put her into early menopause – because she knew that she was at increased risk of developing ovarian cancer.
Today Michelle, 36, says she has no regrets. “I’d decided to have a hysterectomy once our son was born. It sounds drastic but I knew that it would reduce my chances of having ovarian cancer and ultimately allow me to be there for my kids later in life,” says Michelle, who is best known for being a member of pop group Liberty X.
The band, formed after appearing on TV talent show Popstars in 2001, had a string of hit records.
Michelle first discovered she was at higher risk of developing both ovarian and breast cancer six months after her daughter Faith was born in 2012. Her paternal grandmother had been diagnosed with both cancers, although she died from other causes four years ago. A genetic test following her grandmother’s death showed she carried the BRCA2 gene.
Two decades ago scientists discovered the signifi cance of carrying the mutant BRCA2 gene. Its role is to produce a protein that repairs the DNA of cells in our bodies. However if it is not working properly, damaged cells can become cancerous. It means those who inherit the gene are more likely to develop certain types of cancer.
A blood test revealed that Michelle’s father and his two sisters carried the abnormal gene which had also been passed on to her. “I’d already decided if I did have the mutant gene I would have a double mastectomy as soon as possible,” she says. “I was told I had an 85 per cent chance of developing breast cancer which was worrying. I wanted to get that eliminated as soon as I possibly could. That would mean having both of my breasts removed.”
She admits it was a diffi cult time for her and her husband, Irish businessman Hugh Hanley. “The doctors could only give me the hard facts so we had to go away and think about it,” she says. “It was a life- changing decision to have the surgery. One of my main concerns was that if I had a second child, I wouldn’t be able to breastfeed him or her.”
In the end, Michelle went ahead with the surgery in 2012 and says the hardest part was not being such a “hands- on” mum during the two months she was recovering, but she also knew she still had a 35 per cent risk of developing ovarian cancer.
“It was always at the back of my mind,” she says. “Although my chances of developing ovarian cancer were lower than breast cancer, the added complication was that ovarian cancer is very much a silent killer.
“The symptoms aren’t very obvious or easily detectable. Feeling bloated or having cramps in your stomach can be put down to something else or so easily ignored. So once it’s diagnosed, it can in many cases be too late.
“I knew it could be very diffi cult to spot if I did have it, I wanted to take away that risk and I arranged to have a total hysterectomy at a private hospital in November 2014.”
Having her ovaries removed brought on the menopause – and a whole raft of unpleasant symptoms – at the age of 35. “I wanted to enjoy being a mum but instead it was a very emotional time,” she says.
Michelle was prescribed hormone replacement therapy ( HRT) to help her deal with the side effects which can include hot fl ushes, mood swings and night sweats. She has it in the form of an implanted pellet under the skin of her tummy.
It releases a regulated dose of oestrogen, the female hormone that naturally diminishes during the menopause and testosterone too. Every six months the pellet is replaced under local anaesthetic.
ALTHOUGH Michelle expected hot fl ushes, it was the emotional ups and downs that bothered her more in the 12 months after having her operation. “There are good and bad days,” she says. “But it’s a lot better now. It’s very diffi cult to explain to people how the menopause is affecting you – you can’t pinpoint exactly how it makes you feel but I’ve certainly experienced the whole roller coaster of emotions.”
Since having the surgery, Michelle has become more aware of the long- term impact of having a hysterectomy so early in life.
“I know going through the menopause means my body will age much faster. I’m not just talking about getting lines around my eyes, but internally. I’m now conscious of the early onset of osteoporosis – where bones become thinner and more prone to fractures – which is another side effect.”
But despite the consequences, she believes she made the right decision. “Looking back now I’m even more convinced I did the correct thing. I’ve never regretted it and hope I never will,” says Michelle who is now working with the ovarian cancer support charity Ovacome.
“A lot of people think it’s really drastic. I agree that it was – but what sort of decisions would I have had to make if I had developed ovarian cancer?
“I’ve now got that worry out of my mind, although it doesn’t completely eliminate the risk. But it has massively reduced my chances of getting ovarian and breast cancer.”