The HRT debate: baffling women and doctors

theage.com.au

October 24, 2010

FOR the first time in five years, Molly Hanrahan is looking forward to summer. She won’t pack a towel and change of clothes every time she leaves the house. She won’t wake up four times a night, her bed sheets drenched in sweat. In summers past, the hot flushes – up to 15 times a day – turned the 51-year-old’s life into ”absolute hell”.

”It’s like being trapped in a hot, confined space that’s airless and you get that rising kind of flushing feeling into your face. I’d have sweat all over my face, torso, underarms.”

When menopause arrived at 46, bringing insomnia, night sweats and urinary problems, Hanrahan was loath to try hormone replacement therapy (HRT) because of publicity surrounding a 2002 study that linked it to breast cancer. But when Chinese medicine, acupuncture and dietary changes failed to alleviate her symptoms, she reluctantly changed her mind. 

Every woman’s symptoms are different, but Hanrahan’s predicament is typical. HRT, taken by 12 per cent of Australian women over 50 as a daily pill, skin patch or cream, worked for her, but she doesn’t like taking it. ”There’s that very strong link to cancer and, of course, that’s a big worry. Right now, I feel like I’m taking a risk.”

It’s a dilemma shared by 2 million Australian women going through or approaching menopause, a stage of life when menstruation ends and the body’s production of the sex hormones oestrogen and progesterone drops off.

”I don’t believe there’s any other group of medications that women seem to have so much misinformation about and seem to have this fear of. They’ll just say, ‘I don’t want to take hormones’,” says Dr Elizabeth Farrell, president of the Australasian Menopause Society, which helps women during and after menopause.

Some specialists, convinced of the drugs’ benefits, believe half of all menopausal women should be taking HRT. They argue the now-famous 2002 study was deeply flawed and had long-lasting and damaging impacts.

They worry the fear of hormone replacement is actually harming women’s health because the therapy has the potential to not only banish hot flushes, but to protect women against conditions such as osteoporosis and heart disease.

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Author: Leslie Carol Botha

Author, publisher, radio talk show host and internationally recognized expert on women's hormone cycles. Social/political activist on Gardasil the HPV vaccine for adolescent girls. Co-author of "Understanding Your Mood, Mind and Hormone Cycle." Honorary advisory board member for the Foundation for the Study of Cycles and member of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research.