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Wednesday, November 9, 2022

There’s no such thing as a textbook menopause – and taking HRT isn’t ‘cheating’ | Jenny Eclair

I’m not panicking about the HRT shortage yet: I’ve still got a couple of months’ worth of Oestrogel stashed under my bed. Not that I’m particularly keen to have this information bandied about – let’s face it, people have burgled houses for far less. That said, the over-50s female population isn’t known for its burglary skills – few of us have either the figure or drainpipe skills to pull off such a heist in order to restock our HRT supplies – but you never know. Personally, I’ll be checking the locks until the crisis is over.

And, yes, the HRT shortage is a crisis for many women, for whom going without a drug they depend on to function properly is a terrifying prospect. Not everyone is sympathetic to this plight: the HRT argument has been raging for years and is weirdly divisive even among the sisterhood. Those of us who take it tend to be evangelical about its magical powers; those who don’t, either by choice or for medical reasons, tend to question its validity. These conflicting opinions can get quite heated.

Most women I know who didn’t end up on HRT were put off by unhelpful GPs, or some ingrained hair-shirt mentality that beating the menopause should be a simple matter of occasionally biting down hard on a piece of leather, screaming silently and putting on a brave face. After all, our mothers and grandmothers went through it. Yes, and my grandmother also once lost a nipple in a mangle, but times move on, and things are meant to get better for women, not worse.

There is no such thing as a textbook menopause: its symptoms are numerous and random, and for every fiftysomething who has one hot flush and hey presto it’s all done and dusted, there is another woman suffering through years of menopausal misery.

The menopause is a bit like childbirth insomuch as other people think they have the right to inform you how it should be done. The anti-HRT brigade claim that women are being medicated in order to make them more docile. “Why shouldn’t women be angry?” they argue, and I can see their point, but my response is that HRT didn’t stop me being angry, it just stopped me crying.

I would also rather be put on a drug that has been designed to deal with a specific medical need than, say, antidepressants, which might tackle a side-effect of the menopause but not the root cause. HRT does what it says on the pack: it replaces the hormones that your body is no longer producing, and, if this seems like “cheating” to some people, then I’m happy to cheat.

Typically, the UK is the only country currently suffering from an HRT shortage. The main supply problem concerns Oestrogel, a colourless, slimy transdermal gel that you rub into your thigh or shoulder. I’m a shoulder girl, and for me this gel is combined with a pill called Noriday, and then bingo! – the combination controls my anxiety and makes my nails grow long and strong like a wolf’s. It makes my hair thicker too. I suppose once I start howling at the moon, I will know I’ve overdone it.

The Oestrogel shortage could be tackled by allowing pharmacists to dispense equally effective alternative gels, but this isn’t allowed in most areas of the country. Instead, women must speak to their GPs and obtain a new prescription. In Spain, you can obtain HRT over the counter. In February, there was a rumour that HRT would soon be available without a prescription in the UK too, but this turned out to be untrue. The only treatment that might become available is a pessary that deals with vaginal dryness, a common menopausal symptom, but just one of very many.

In the meantime, anyone running low on supplies will live in hope of an HRT delivery asap. If burglary is out of the question, you can resort to secretly rummaging through friends’ bedside and bathroom cabinets in the hope of nabbing a spare bottle. If you think the petrol wars got ugly, then you ain’t seen nothing yet.

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