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Let’s talk | Menopause

At 47, Sharon MacArthur, began going through ‘the change’. She, like most women, had no idea what was happening to her body and mind. We spoke to her about what menopause is and the support available.

By Helen Bowman

Tell us about the story behind Miss Menopause

I started going through ‘the change’ at 47. I refer to it as the menopause magic because it all seems to be smoke and mirrors around the subject.

In my mind, women going through the menopause were old and infirm. They weren’t like me. I was still young with a thriving career and an active social life. I had no idea what was happening to me. It all seemed too early, and nothing seemed to make sense. I was losing sleep due to raging night sweats, and it started impacting my relationship with my partner because we were both so exhausted.

I researched my symptoms and asked other women about their experiences. A peer of mine suggested I could be going through the menopause. I told her she was crazy, but it turned out she was right. I still didn’t understand what was happening. Menopause, it seemed, was the final taboo.

There were two catalysts behind me starting up Miss Menopause. The first was when I attended a mental health first aid course during 2016. It was a comprehensive two-day course covering all the aspects of mental health and Schizophrenia was one of the subjects covered in detail. 

I sat back and thought, only 1% of the population is affected by Schizophrenia, and here we are covering the details of it as a condition. 100% of women (plus all their male family and friends) are affected by the menopause, and it’s one of the biggest causes of poor mental health there could be – why aren’t we talking about this?

The second catalyst was a British Menopause Society event I attended two years ago. It was an event for medical professionals, and I sat in on some of the talks. I learned that GPs elect their specialities in addition to general practitioner training. The menopause is one of those electives, and so few doctors choose to study it – a condition that happens to every single woman.

I knew I needed to do something about the lack of education and training, not just in the medical profession, but in the wider business world and the general public. So, I set up Miss Menopause. It’s my mission to educate businesses and individuals about the impact of the menopause and to help women work through the ‘magic’.

Explain to us, in simple terms, what the menopause is

Here is where the technical terms get cloudy. 

You have only reached the menopause when you haven’t had a period for 12 consecutive months. On that day, you’re menopausal. But the day after, you’re seen as postmenopausal. And even then, your periods may be finished, but the magic is still happening.

Before the big day itself, you’re perimenopausal. You’re experiencing symptoms of the menopause, but until you reach that 12-month period-free stage, you’re perimenopausal.

The difference is in the semantics.

What was historically known as ‘going through the change’ or ‘starting the menopause’ is the perimenopause. That’s when the ‘magic’ starts to happen. Your periods will change; you’ll start feeling different. You might experience hot flushes, mind fogs, short-term memory loss, perpetual tiredness.

This is as a result of our hormone levels dropping. 

The ‘normal’ age for perimenopause is 45 and older, but as with all things, it can happen earlier. The menopause can take around ten years from the start of symptoms to the end.

Symptoms can range from night terrors and hot sweats to a change of mood and physical ailments like headaches and exhaustion. There are no standard symptoms for the menopause, which is why it’s so difficult to diagnose.

Why is the menopause such a taboo subject, and what does the menopause mean for most women?

I’ve said that women today are pioneers. We’ve never lived so long, and we’re having our children later in life, we’re looking after increasingly elderly parents. Our lives are significantly different from our mothers and grandmothers.

Changes in pension age meant that women have to work longer and that’s a real worry. I’ve witnessed incredibly intelligent, high-achieving women suffer the symptoms of the menopause and consequently lose their confidence completely. They think they’re getting Alzheimer’s or losing their ability to function normally. They step back from their careers and take lower-paid, lesser responsible positions because they believe they can’t do it anymore. 

They’re merely dealing with symptoms which can be managed and overcome. But education around the subject is such that we’re losing a considerable percentage of the workforce to more menial jobs through ignorance around the issue.

My mission is to educate organisations and individuals about the menopause to avoid the loss of valuable team members through misunderstandings related to the symptoms of menopause.

What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to women about the menopause?

For me, it’s about letting women know that they’re in the least exclusive club there is. Every single woman will go through the menopause in later life, and yet we still feel alone, isolated, confused when it happens to us. Talk about it. Take away the taboo and discuss your experiences. You’ll help yourself as well as the women you talk to. 

Don’t wait until you’re there before educating yourself about the symptoms and the possible ways of managing them. There are so many options and, if you know your body, you’ll know it’s changing. 

Find a great GP with knowledge about the menopause and don’t be fobbed off when you go to see them. Ask questions, check facts and, if in doubt, ask for a second opinion.

If you think you’re perimenopausal, make a list of your symptoms and prioritise them in order of severity (for me the worst was a lack of sleep). Take your list of symptoms to your doctor and work on them one by one.

Is it essential to seek the support of GP for menopausal symptoms?

Crucial? No. But it’s advisable if you’d like to go down a medical route for managing your symptoms. I’d also add that it’s nice to get a professional opinion on your symptoms at a time when things seem confusing and overwhelming.

There are four possible pathways for managing menopausal symptoms. None of these is exclusive; I tried several of them before settling on the one that suited my needs and my body the best.

  • Medical route – this means HRT, not anti-depressants or sleeping tablets.
  • Herbal route – vitamins, minerals, herbs. This route comes with its risks, with many herbal medicines dampening or even stopping the effects of conventional medications, so take care.
  • Holistic route – cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), holistic therapies, mindfulness, yoga etc.
  • DIY route – eat well, exercise, reduce alcohol intake, reduce caffeine intake and stop smoking.

There are many different avenues to explore, aside from the medical route. It depends on your lifestyle and beliefs

There are loads of options available to women to manage their symptoms, but can you bust the biggest myth around the menopause for us?

There are a couple of myths I’d like to bust. 

The first is that HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy) is terrible. Indeed, as with any course of medication, there are risks involved. But each woman needs to weigh up whether the benefits outweigh the risks and decide from there. For me, it was my magic bullet. I’d tried dozens of herbal, medicinal and alternative therapies before I requested HRT. Within two weeks, my symptoms had died down, and I was sleeping like a pre-menopausal woman again.

The second myth is that the menopause will be just a few hot flushes, and then it’s done. That is not the case. For the lucky 25% of women in the UK, there will be little or no symptoms. But for the other 75% of us, hot flushes, vaginal dryness, insomnia, weight gain, depression, memory problems, anxiety may become the norm. Everyone is different. But every one of these symptoms is manageable in some way. I implore women not to become a victim of the menopause but to take back control, do something about your symptoms and press on with your life.

How would you recommend women find support during their menopause?

While there’s still a lack of education and support out there, in the North East I’m championing Miss Menopause. I have a Facebook Group that encourages women to talk about their symptoms, their issues, their worries and banish the taboo. We are not alone in this club and talking about it makes us realise that. My primary mission is to educate organisations to ensure women can work through their menopause. I work with organisations around the country to ensure working through menopause becomes business as usual. Find out more here, at www.missmenopause.co.uk.

Join my Facebook group and find out about the support there is out there.

Thinking about it positively, it’s an end to years of putting up with periods and all their associated problems. Plus, it’s an opportunity to bond with other women with whom you have a common thread. The menopause can be a new chapter to be grasped with both hands.

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