GRACE'S MUSINGS: The heroines busting menopause myths
Menopause is still a hot topic – happily, not just among midlife women now, but society at large. Radio 2 DJ Jo Whiley went on the record last week to talk about her symptoms, telling Mail Online: “I felt I was a liability on the radio and it was a very uncomfortable feeling, suddenly grappling for words.”
Thanks to women such as Jo, the conversation around menopause isn’t just opening up, it’s getting louder by the day. And three of my favourite women – Davina McCall, Meg Mathews and Andrea McLean – are pushing the debate still further.
Davina McCall has long been a champion of the unsayable, and in Sex, Myths and the Menopause, her award-winning documentary on Channel 4 earlier this year, she discussed her battle with the symptoms of perimenopause, the long road to diagnosis and the sexist attitudes that underlie many women’s experiences with the medical profession. If you haven’t seen it yet, I’d urge you to do so – it’s important.
“If men had menopause, we’d have fixed it by now,” says Baroness Sayeeda Warsi halfway through the programme. Most of the women Davina talks to are angry – understandably so. The way they’ve been treated by a supposedly enlightened society is appalling.
Even GPs are letting us down: I was shocked to learn that menopause isn’t part of their essential training. In fact, studies show that when women approach their doctor to report anxiety and depression in the run-up to the menopause, two-thirds are offered antidepressants instead of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) – which, according to the NHS, should be the first-line response.
Davina talks movingly about her own journey, and says that when she was finally diagnosed, she felt “quite washed-up and unable to talk to anybody”. But then – luckily for us – she got angry at “how badly women have been served by science”.
She reveals that fear of HRT is one of the reasons that a third of menopausal women don’t even approach their GP. And it’s busting the myths around hormone replacement therapy that I think is crucial. Davina addresses headlines about HRT’s links to breast cancer and the flawed early-Noughties study that concluded that HRT would increase a woman’s risk by 26%, and cause the incidence of heart disease and blood clots to spike. But the women included in that study were, on average, 12 years past menopause.
In fact, the latest statistics show that HRT increases your risk of breast cancer by 0.4%. Yes, it’s still a risk – but a much lower one. So it’s important to be breast aware. Examine your breasts and always attend mammogram appointments when offered one.
Which leads me, in a roundabout way, to another of my menopause champions, Meg Mathews, who’s a staunch supporter of HRT. Since 2018, Meg has been one of the UK’s foremost menopause campaigners, determined to use her profile to end the stigma surrounding it. You can read her columns in The Telegraph. She’s built an incredible Instagram community, and her book, The New Hot: Taking on the Menopause with Attitude and Style, has become a bestseller.
Meg is brilliant at unpacking the mystery surrounding HRT, which she’s been taking for five years, since she was 49. HRT can ease menopause symptoms, from hot flushes to low mood and vaginal dryness – but it has helped Meg overcome brain fog and low libido, too. And did you know that long-term benefits include maintaining bone density, preventing osteoporosis and reducing the risk of fractures?
“There is increased evidence that HRT can help to protect the bowels, lowering the risk of colon cancer, and the heart, lowering the risk of disease. There is also some evidence that it may protect against dementia, too,” says Meg, who calls her experiences around menopause an “incredible journey”. How refreshing to see someone who views this epic life change as something to be grateful for.
The third of my menopause heroines is Andrea McLean, whose website, This Girl Is on Fire, is
a place where women can share their stories and experiences, so they feel less alone, and can gain information and courage to ask for the help they need.
“It also gives women a chance to shine, to get their spark back, to reignite that spark, and know that they can be ‘on fire’ again in their middle years!” says Andrea. “Through hearing the stories of incredible women, I want everyone who joins the TGIOF gang to feel amazing, empowered and ‘on fire’.”
Andrea went into surgical menopause at 46, prompting her to write Confessions of a Menopausal Woman. For her, information is all-important. “That’s why I wanted to write the book, so women had a reference point of, ‘Oh, I feel like that too! So this must be normal!’ and that instantly makes you feel better, and less alone or like you’re going mad.”
She didn’t set out to become the poster girl for menopausal women, but she’s delighted that it’s started a conversation – and so am I. “I love that women are getting in touch with me,” she says, “stopping me in the street to tell me they have read my book and have realised they are not going crazy, that they have gone to the doctor and got the help they need.”
I love what these three women are doing. And I love the fact that more and more of us are finally talking about menopause. Let’s keep the conversation going – because these issues are here to stay. We have to continue to bust the taboos around what we once coyly referred to as “the change” – because we must be the change we want to see in the world.