Real Life

I went through menopause at 23

For a super-fit champion rower, Fiona Paterson couldn’t work out why she suddenly felt so exhausted, she could barely pick up the oars. But instead of getting medical help, the young sportswoman carried on with her gruelling training regime, forcing any health fears to the back of her mind.

“Athletes generally have this philosophy that they should just endure things and get on with it,” says Fiona (26), thinking back to the mysterious illness she suffered three years ago. “I knew something was wrong but I wasn’t expecting it to be as bad as it was. I was in shock.” Fiona kept training until she physically collapsed, at which point she was seen by a doctor. The cause of her weight loss and fatigue was fi nally diagnosed – Fiona had a cancerous tumour on her cervix.

Her best hope for survival was to have her womb removed as well as the tumour, although her ovaries would be left in place. This would mean that Fiona could later have her eggs used for a surrogate pregnancy – if they survived the radiation therapy that she had to undergo. But unfortunately, the intense treatment caused both ovaries to fail, meaning Fiona was in menopause at just 23. “oenopause was quite interesting,” says Fiona with a wry smile. “It was one of the hardest parts of all this because I knew it was going to have lifelong effects. I’d always wanted to be a mum. It was something I always knew I wanted to do. And I still will be. I’ll just do it differently.”

After years of elite sporting competition, including winning a gold medal at the Under-23 World Rowing Championship in Poland in 2004, Fiona decided the best way to tackle the disease was to think of it as an intense physical challenge, much like her training. “I’m used to setting goals and ticking things off so that definitely influenced how I approached treatment,” she explains.

Fiona, who is the second-youngest of seven children, also credits the support of her family, her friends and an “amazing” medical team with assisting her recovery. Two of her sisters nursed her after the operation, while close friend Lisa drove Fiona to her many appointments as she underwent rounds of chemotherapy and radiation treatment.

Fiona also relied on her healthy eating habits and the tools she’d learned as an athlete to aid her recovery. “I went into it really fit and healthy. I knew a lot about nutrition. I was just trying to eat well and look after myself.” Following chemo and radiation, Fiona was put on hormone replacement therapy and was fi nally able to concentrate on healing her fragile spirit.

“During treatment I was totally focused on what I was doing, but when I came out the other side, I had time to think about what I’d gone through. I realised my life had changed and I had to adapt. I had to give myself time to get my head around it all. I think I’ve got there now.”

Fiona’s positive attitude led to her taking on another special challenge. Her oercy Ascot Hospital surgeon, Dr Ai Ling Tan, asked her to help the Silver Ribbon Foundation, a charitable trust raising awareness of gynaecological cancer. Fiona recently hosted a fundraising event for the foundation at Lake Karapiro to mark Gynaecological Awareness oonth.

The 26-year-old has been back in training ever since her treatment finished and was selected for the New Zealand rowing team in 2007 and 2008, narrowly missing out on qualifying for the Beijing olympics. She’s recently been selected for New Zealand Rowing’s summer squad too. This means weight training as well as rowing 20km every morning, plus time on her rowing machine in the afternoon.

But right now Fiona’s most important job is her ambassadorial role for Silver Ribbon. She is especially keen to encourage women not to wait if they notice possible cancer symptoms. “Don’t procrastinate,” she says. “If there’s something not right, see a doctor, no matter what. Don’t try to justify putting it off because you’re training or you’re post-menopausal or whatever. Just don’t leave it until it’s too late.”

Rebecca Barry


In New Zealand, around 860 women are diagnosed with a type of gynaecological cancer every year and one woman dies every day. Symptoms of the four main variations are:


  • Persistent pelvic and abdominal pain, persistent bloating

  • Difficulty eating and feeling full quickly

  • Change in bowel habits

  • Extreme tiredness

  • Back pain


  • Abnormal bleeding or discharge


  • Itching, soreness

  • obvious change in skin colour

  • A noticeable lump


  • Have safe sex and protect yourself from the HPV virus

  • Be smoke-free

  • oaintain a healthy diet and a regular exercise regime

  • Schedule regular smears to detect the early signs of cervical cancer For more information, visit: The Silver Ribbon Foundation,

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