MENOPAUSE: TELL US THE GOOD NEWS
Women are suffering needlessly according to The Menopause Guru, Dr Stephanie Goodwin.
I spent a good hour of my 50th birthday lying on a hospital examination bed. Party cancelled, all celebrations abandoned, I was having a chunk removed from my lower back to do a skin biopsy. For the previous six weeks I’d been covered in a rash so itchy I couldn’t sleep and diagnosis was a matter of urgency. When I gave the nurse my date of birth and she chirped “Many happy returns,” I stifled a sob. I wasn’t feeling remotely birthday-ish, TBH.
The cause of the rash was a mystery to the GPs and dermatologists, but eventually, after multiple tests, it was given a name and blamed in large part on the culprit that was already making my life a misery in so many other ways: the menopause. As if the mood swings, night sweats and constant over-heating weren’t enough of an issue, my hyper-irritated skin felt as raw as a peeled prawn and I couldn’t bear to be touched.
Menopause, you are not fun. What is your problem? We get that you’re a natural part of life, that our reproductive system is closing down and our oestrogen levels dropping. But do you have to do it in such an attention-seeking way? It’s the body’s equivalent of a ‘flounce’.
And don’t get me started on the peri-menopause, which somehow catches us unawares, usually round our early to mid-40s; an uninvited guest that we can’t quite recognise. All those weird symptoms of hormonal change like brain fog, periods going haywire and waking up in the night feeling anxious and sad can start years before we expect all this to be an issue.
“The menopause is the body’s equivalent of a ‘flounce’”
When this had first hit me big-time around 48, having barely exerted a muscle in my life I’d taken up jogging and soon got hooked. Scared of HRT and all its bad press, I tackled both peri-menopausal and menopausal symptoms through regular exercise, a healthier diet, less alcohol (it only made the skin itchier anyway) and a fan by the bed and one in my office (luckily I work from home). But the sense of humour bypass was total. Veering between tears and snarling, I spent a lot of time hiding in our bedroom in the loft, too miserable and bad-tempered to be around my bemused family. Like Bertha Mason, Mr Rochester’s deranged first wife locked in the attic in Jane Eyre, I was best kept away from human company. Perhaps poor Bertha was menopausal too?
But I got through it.
And now friends tell me HRT has changed their lives for the better. Is it really safe to take? After all those years of bad press, is Hormone Replacement Therapy the answer to menopausal misery? GP and menopause specialist Dr Stephanie Goodwin, The Menopause Guru, says: “I recommend HRT for any woman who wants to take it. Its benefits far outweigh its risks. All the information about the risks of taking HRT was based on evidence from a study from years ago which was flawed from the outset. If women are symptomatic, if they’re getting hot flushes, night sweats, joint pains, vaginal dryness, they’re not sleeping and experiencing mood changes, taking HRT means they will soon feel back to normal – their relationships, wellbeing and ability to work will all improve”.
And there’s more good news, says Dr Stephanie. “Recent studies show that if you take Hormone Replacement Therapy your risk of cardiovascular disease is reduced and that’s the thing you’re most likely to die from after 55. The risks of bowel cancer and osteoporosis are reduced and probably dementia too”.
But what about the much-publicised link with breast cancer? “If you take HRT your breast cancer risk is extremely small,” says Dr Stephanie. “Breast cancer is genetically pre-determined, so if you’re going to get it you’re going to get it I’m afraid. While HRT may bring it forward slightly it will not give you breast cancer.”.
It’s even an investment in your future says Dr Steph. “Taking HRT is not only about relieving symptoms now but also reducing your risk of disease due to the complications of oestrogen deficiency later on. Lots of older women fall over and break a hip and die from that because they’ve got osteoporosis, which is avoidable if you’ve taken HRT. Studies show the worse your menopausal symptoms are, the more likely you are to get a chronic disease like cardiovascular disease or diabetes. So feeling terrible during the menopause and bravely pushing through it actually means you are in danger of having greater problems later in life”.
““There has been so much misinformation about HRT and women are suffering needlessly””
If you’re enduring the kind of menopausal symptoms that are making your life miserable, discuss it with your GP – and if they’re unsympathetic ask to see a different one. But it’s also important to arm yourself with information so you can weigh it all up and decide what’s right for you. According to the NHS website some types of HRT can cause a small increase in your risk of certain serious problems, such as blood clots and breast cancer, but the benefits of HRT are generally felt to outweigh the risks. The Women’s Health Concern website, an excellent and reliable resource for menopause information says: “Women wishing to start HRT should carefully discuss the benefits and risks of treatment with their doctor to see what is right for them, taking into account their age, medical history, risk factors and personal preferences”.
Says Dr Stephanie: ““There has been so much misinformation about HRT and women are suffering needlessly. GPs should be able to give you good advice but there is a lack of interest in the menopause, even though every woman patient will go through it. Part of the reason I work in this area is because there isn’t enough good information about something that affects every woman. But there’s no need to suffer in silence and we should all talk about it more. For many women it’s ultimately really liberating going through the menopause – it’s not the end of your femininity at all”.
And the angry rash? A few appointments with a Chinese herbalist/acupuncturist sent the problem packing and I now look back on that weird, lonely, itchy, sleep-deprived period of my life with bemusement. The menopause robbed me of my 50th birthday and it will never be forgiven. But I have learnt to be the bigger person.
Words: Marina Gask