- Kelly McLay was diagnosed with menopause at age 24, leaving her infertile at a time her peers were trying desperately not to get pregnant.
- Premature menopause affects about 1% of women under 40 and comes with serious consequences, like increased risk of certain cancers and osteoporosis, in addition to infertility.
- McLay shared her story on the Pregnantish podcast, detailing what it was like to have hot flashes and vaginal dryness in her 20s, her and her husband's journey to have children through egg donation, and how her diagnosis led her to her passion: running.
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When Kelly McLay was in her mid-20s, she joined her mom's volleyball league. The group of 50-something-year-old women understood her in a way that her peers did not: They too were going through menopause.
"It was really my mom and her friends that became my sounding board, could understand my ups and downs, could understand the grieving of going through this process because it was physical and mental," McLay told host Andrea Syrtash on the November 5 episode of the podcast Pregnantish.
McLay, who's now in her 40s and is the founder of Fitness International Travel, was diagnosed with menopause at age 24. She'd been diagnosed with hypothyroidism at age 10, but didn't learn until 14 years and two doctors later that her body hadn't just shut down her thyroid, leading to lethargy and weight gain, but it had also attacked her ovaries.
The condition left her infertile and battling symptoms like night sweats and vaginal dryness when her peers were having late-night parties and casual hookups.
"That diagnosis thrust me into a world of mammograms and kegel balls. I needed to build up the elasticity of my vagina," McLay told Syrtash. "Everything was going to get dry and fall apart." She also had to manage roller-coastering emotions and the increased risk of other conditions like osteoporosis and certain cancers.
The weight of it all hit home when an ultrasound technician, someone typically associated with positive pregnancy news, told McLay her ovaries looked like "shriveled raisins." Even now, that comment makes McLay cry.
"It just pounded in that I was facing all this older stuff as a 20-year-old and my body had died," she said. "Really, a part of me had died and that kind of confirmed it."
Premature menopause affects 1 in 1,000 women under 30
Premature menopause, also called premature ovarian failure, is when the ovaries of women under 40 stop releasing an egg each month. It affects 1 in 1,000 women between ages 15-29 and 1 in 100 women between ages 30 and 39. The average age for menopause in the US is 51.
The condition can be caused by autoimmune disorders, a viral infection, eating disorders, a genetic condition, a thyroid dysfunction like McLay's, or several other health issues. Most often, though, the cause is unknown, the American Pregnancy Association says.
Beyond being painful and awkward to bring up on first dates ("I just blurted it out," McLay said of divulging the condition to new love interests), the condition is linked to serious health complications including premature death, neurological diseases, psychosexual dysfunction, mood disorders, osteoporosis, ischemic heart disease, and, top of mind to McLay, infertility.
"When all of a sudden something is not there, you want it more than anything," she told Syrtash.
McLay now has two children and 70 marathons under her belt
McLay's story has a hopeful ending. She and her husband have two children whom they conceived via egg donation.
But like any infertility journey, theirs wasn't linear, involving multiple miscarriages, failed embryo transfers, countless hormones and drugs; hefty bills and contracts, and loads of doctors' appointments.
The experience required the type of endurance and preparation for roadblocks that's needed for marathon running, something McLay pursued for the first time after her diagnosis. "I still needed to feel young and I needed to feel that i was beautiful and youthful and could do challenging things and still had this 20-year-old body," she told Syrtash.
If she'd not gone through premature menopause, she likely would not have found that passion. She's now run 70 marathons to date, seven of which she ran on seven continents in seven days, called the World Marathon Challenge.
Her company, which organizes marathon-running and other wellness adventure trips around the world, is also born from her infertility-spawned love of running. "It was a long journey, it was a marathon," she said. "But how beautiful is the finish line now?"
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