When Nicole Barrow started feeling warm all the time in her mid-twenties, she thought she had a low fever.
"I couldn’t sleep, had headaches, restless legs and was sweating during the night," says Barrow, now 35, a psychiatric nurse prescriber from Fylde Coast in Lancashire.
"I felt exhausted, my hair went thin, my skin would itch like crazy and I was craving sugary foods all the time.
"Strangely, sex became painful and the contact lenses which I’d worn since I was 17 started dropping out of my eyes because they were so dry."
Barrow visited her GP but blood tests ruled out any kind of fever or illness. She returned several weeks later with "burning skin and legs", but again, the doctor took her temperature and told her there was nothing wrong. A third visit several weeks later yielded no further answers.
Watch: Davina McCall reveals her confusion at having menopause symptoms in her 40s
"I felt bloated and having missed three periods but I knew it couldn’t be pregnancy because I wasn’t having sex," says Barrow. "I was prescribed peppermint capsules for irritable bowel syndrome and sent away again.
"I had no idea what was going on. I would sit in nursing lectures with sweat pouring down my back and on the verge of panic attacks. I had terrible anxiety and started to get migraines with aura – flashing lights, blurred vision and speech difficulty."
In fact, it was only after multiple visits to her GP and several very worrying mis-diagnoses including a brain tumour and ovarian cancer, that Barrow was referred for an MRI scan and ultrasound on her abdomen that she finally got some answers – at the age of 26 she was going through the menopause.
"I felt complete and utter shame," admits Barrow. "I had always believed I was an alpha female but discovering I was going through the menopause aged 26, made me feel as if I was losing a sense of identity. I was infertile. I was utterly horrified."
Yet Barrow is far from alone. Approximately one in every 100 women under the age of 40, one in 1,000 women under 30 and one in 10,000 women under 20 are affected by premature ovarian insufficiency (POI), according to The Daisy Network, a charity for women with POI. Although some women experience it thanks to surgery or cancer treatments, around 5% of the population experience it naturally before the age of 45.
The cause in many cases is unknown but the effects can be life-changing. It is why International Women's Day on Monday 8 March 2020 has chosen to highlight early menopause as part of the Mission Health.
Watch: Women with premature ovarian insufficiency hit with more severe symptoms
"Unlike most women who go through this diagnosis, the fact I couldn’t have children was the least of my worries at first as I’d never been particularly maternal," says Barrow.
"But as the news sank in, the decision about children being taken away from me was devastating. It didn’t help that all my cousins were suddenly having children and I kept being asked when I’d be having one.
"I actually kept my diagnosis secret from most people for six years. My close family were in total denial about it so I got very little emotional support and I kept it hidden from partners too as I worried that if they knew, they wouldn’t want to be with me – that’s a decision I regret now as honesty is always the best policy."
Read more: Having less sex linked to early menopause
It wasn’t only in her personal life that was affected either.
"I had to take six months out of university because I felt exhausted all the time as I was trying to work full-time as a student nurse while working weekends on a make-up counter to earn some money for fuel for my nursing placements," she explains. "It was very tough both physically and emotionally."
Nine years on, and a fully qualified nurse with a partner who "fully accepts" her situation, Barrow is extremely positive about her future.
"I don’t let my diagnosis hold me back and now, having tried several HRTs, I’m on a very good routine of hormones," she says.
"If I could give any advice to women going through premature menopause it would be: ‘Do your research and don’t be afraid to tell your doctors if you’re not happy with your treatment plan. Ask questions and walk away from any negative vibes.
"I’ve learned to live a life without shame."
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