We are proof that there is life after the menopause
Ahead of a BBC documentary, Karen Ireland talks to women determined to shatter the taboo of 'the change'.
For years, women experiencing the menopause suffered in silence. The embarrassing hot flushes and bewildering hormonal mood swings were topics that were never discussed openly.
But tonight Newsnight presenter Kirsty Wark fronts a BBC One documentary which she hopes will give a wider audience a new appreciation of what women go through during 'the change'.
She speaks from personal experience as she had a medical menopause following a hysterectomy at the age of 47, then came off HRT due to fears over its reported links to breast cancer.
The documentary, she believes, will be beneficial to partners, husbands, family, friends, work colleagues and employers in giving them information on what menopausal women have to cope with.
We talk to two women who have experienced the menopause and also report on how high-profile celebrities have gone public on the subject.
‘I was 42 when I got symptoms, but now I’ve never felt better’
Part-time administrative assistant and part-time model Denise O’Neill (54) is married to Gerry. She lives in Lisburn and has two children, Clare (25) and Mark (22). She says:
I see the menopause as a metamorphosis into a new chapter of your life, and it is a positive thing.
There is life after the menopause, and I am living proof of that. I’ve never felt better. It’s just puberty in reverse as the body doesn’t need to reproduce any longer.
I was 42 when I started having symptoms and, believe me, I had every textbook symptom.
I had night sweats, hot flushes, my mood was low, I had a foggy head and headaches and I had a reduced libido.
It got worse around my mid-40s and then it reached a climax when I was about 49.
I’m not saying those years were in any way easy because it was terrible having all those symptoms, but I got through it. You do.
I tried HRT, but it didn’t work for me and I felt it made me worse, so I stopped it and just let nature take its course and do its thing.
During those years, I tried to help myself as much as possible.
I kept a towel at the bedside at night, I wore layers so I could take clothes off, I drank loads of water and I kept the windows opened as much as possible.
I am the sort of person who likes to read and research things for myself, and I read a terrific book by Dr Christiane Northurp called the Wisdom of the Menopause.
That was full of examples of what to expect and what was normal, and that helped me a lot. It helped me to know that I was not alone.
That is the problem with this topic – no one wants to talk about it and everyone sees it as this hugely negative thing that is the end of the world.
I might not have the same energy now as I did years ago but that’s okay — my body is changing.
Since the menopause, I have taken on many new challenges such as modelling for CMPR, which I love.
I’ve also become a campaigner and have a blog about having naturally grey hair.
I’ve even been on television and radio talking about positive ageing. I’ve also joined a choir.
Through going through the menopause, I learned a lot about my inner self and the things which were important to me. I have a freedom now that I’ve never had before.
I don’t sweat the small stuff and I just get on with my life, which I love, and I don’t care anymore what other people think. The children are adults now and don’t need me in the same way. Now is the time to focus on me and concentrate on enjoying my life.
I think that programmes such as Kirsty Wark’s Breaking the Silence about the Menopause are really important, and it will hopefully be enlightening and dispel some of the myths.”
‘HRT gave me my life back ... I was a new woman’
Weight Watchers leader Betty Cairns is married to Kevin (55). They live in Londonderry and have two children, Caoimhe (24) and Ciaran (22). She says:
Really, I am 52 now and should just be going through the menopause at the moment, but I went through it when I was just 32.
I had difficulty having my children and had two previous miscarriages — one at nine weeks and one at 16 weeks, so when I got pregnant with Caoimhe I was put on hormone drugs to sustain the pregnancy.
After Ciaran was born, I was really tired and I thought it was just post-baby tiredness, but it didn’t go away.
I was constantly tired to the point where I couldn’t really do anything. I was so tired I felt sick. I had other symptoms too. I was very moody. Looking back, I must have been terrible to live with for Kevin and the kids.
When your mood is low and you don’t feel like doing anything, you pull other people down with you without even realising it.
I felt like I was losing my mind, and I was constantly having hot flushes. I would be warm one minute and pull the covers off me in bed and the next pull them back on again.
I had the hot flushes during the day as well. I would be standing taking a class and this feeling would just wash over me. It was unbearable.
I had burning legs as well and was bleeding all the time.
No one thought it could be the menopause as I was only 32. When I went to the GP, he said he would do a hormone profile and if it came back that I was in the menopause he would eat his hat as I was far too young.
That is exactly what happened. The profile showed that I was in early menopause.
I wasn’t that shocked as I had the hormone problems in my pregnancy. I was just relieved to get a diagnosis.
They put me on HRT straight away, even though friends and family advised me not to take it because my mum had breast cancer years before. I was prepared to take the risk because I couldn’t go on the way I was.
Within three weeks, I was like a different person. I would call the HRT a wonder drug for me.
It took away all the symptoms immediately and I was like a new woman. Everyone noticed the difference in me.
It gave me back my life and I could be a happy and active mother again with my children, which was the most important thing.
I was on the treatment until I was 50, then I was advised to come off it. When I came off it, I had no side-effects or no return of the symptoms. I was great.
I feel more women should talk openly about this, so we know there is life after HRT. I had no one to talk to when I was going through my symptoms as no one my age was going through the same thing. I felt very isolated and alone.
(I wish) there was more awareness and not just an acceptance that this is something we must go through.”
- Kirsty Wark: The Menopause and Me is on BBC One tonight, 11.45pm
‘I’m at ease because there’s nothing to be feared’: how celebrities tackled ‘the change’
Angelina Jolie - "I am now in menopause" wrote the actor in an article for the New York Times in which the 39-year-old announced she had undergone an operation to remove her ovaries and fallopian tubes in an attempt to reduce the chance of getting cancer. The procedure puts a woman into forced menopause. "I will not be able to have any more children, and I expect some physical changes," Jolie wrote. "But I feel at ease with whatever will come, not because I am strong but because this is a part of life. It is nothing to be feared."
Linda Barker TV presenter - "The change is the appropriate name for it as everything changes. Your physical being, your mental approach and the way you look. I feel stronger now. I am able to take on new challenges and I have more courage."
Jane Seymour - the actor, voted one of the world's sexiest women in her 50s by entertainment news outlet Zimbio, found a formidable foe in menopause. The yoga-practising, disciplined dieter, familiar with gruelling hours on set, decided she needed "a back-up plan". For Jane, that was controversial HRT, which is associated with increased risk of breast cancer, stroke, and blood clots. "I concluded that because I was not at high risk of any of the diseases associated with HRT, I decided to take it on my terms," she said.
Susan Sarandon - the actress accepts menopause for what it is and believes in ageing gracefully. For her, the menopause (at age 54) arrived "uneventfully" - a period unmarked by major menopausal symptoms and free from creams or surgeries. In addition to a good diet, exercise, and stress management, Sarandon said she embraced menopause by living a healthy lifestyle.
Gillian Anderson - "I felt like someone else had taken over my brain. The lack of clear information is the biggest problem. Perimenopause and menopause should be treated as the rites of passage that they are. If not celebrated, then at least they should be accepted and acknowledged and honoured."