Why are we still afraid to talk about menopause?

It is a natural part of female life but the stigma still remains among women

Like menstruation, menopause is a natural part of female life - but despite the fact that it will happen to all of us, there is still a stigma attached to it, with many women reluctant to reveal they are going through it.

On average, menopause occurs around the age of 52, but many women begin to experience some of its uncomfortable tell-tale feelings long before they have stopped menstruating.

Leah Kennedy can attest to this. She began having menopausal symptoms when she was in her thirties. "I first went to the doctor because I was concerned about my periods which had become very irregular in terms of frequency, duration and flow," says the now 42-year-old. "My cycle could vary from 17 days to 39 days and could be over in two days or it could go on for a couple of weeks.

“I was 36 and now know that this is one of the signs of menopause, but at the time I was clueless. And I suspect it was having an effect on me earlier as it had taken a long time to conceive my third child, who I had at 34.”

The Dublin woman was sent for tests, all of which proved inconclusive and she was told that her irregular cycle was just something she had to get used to. However, a year later, her periods stopped and after ruling out another pregnancy, she was sent for further tests which revealed some hormone irregularity.

“When my GP rang me with my results, he initially thought it was PCOS (Polycystic ovary syndrome),” says the mother-of three. “But a couple of weeks later he rang to say I was in fact going through early menopause and suggested I see a consultant gynaecologist.

“At the time, the only symptoms I had were a lack of periods, weight gain and the occasional night sweats - all perfectly manageable. But I was oblivious to my horrendous mood swings, depression, flatness, rage, impatience, and overwhelming feeling that there was no joy in the world. It took an intervention on behalf of my mother and husband for me to realise and accept that something wasn’t right.

“In the meantime, I began to research bio-identical hormone therapy and started seeing a doctor who specialised in compounded versions of this. After a few days of being on this new medication I felt better than I had ever felt before. My energy levels were up, my inner calm restored, and I even experienced moments of sheer euphoria.

“However after a year or so on this treatment I had begun to feel low again. That doctor explained that women’s hormones are a mystery – going up and down, so it’s about finding the right balance.

"Then last year, I discovered the Menopause Hub – a one-stop-shop for menopause treatments and I have been going there ever since. A friend recommended it and I have been going to them ever since - as Loretta Dignam, the owner, is quite the force to be reckoned with, and her passion and willingness to fight for voiceless menopausal women is quite contagious."

Leah doesn’t know why she went into menopause early, but is very grateful that she had her children young and that she has found the right treatment for her symptoms. She would encourage women everywhere to stop feeling embarrassed about menopause, to discuss symptoms with ease and make sure to find the best individual treatment.

“I’m very open about my experiences and feel no shame in openly discussing menopause,” she says. “I don’t shout it from the rooftops, but I make myself available to people who feel like they need someone to talk to. Many of my clients (she specialises in face massage) want to talk about their own experiences and I am always willing to listen because I think a lot of women aren’t being listened to. While society is getting a bit better about discussing menopause, I still think we have a long way to go.

“It can be an incredibly difficult time, made worse perhaps by the feeling that there is no end in sight, and I have seen many a strong woman completely floored by it. However, many women experience menopause differently. Going through menopause early is lonely as friends cannot understand – but as strange as it may sound though, I’m grateful I am going through this young, while I still have plenty of energy. I wish it had been caught earlier as my bones would perhaps be a little stronger – but my spirit isn’t broken.

“My advice to other women would be to find a different doctor if they aren’t being listened to. And another and another. Do this until you feel like your old self again. There are plenty of solutions out there. Never stop looking until you find the one that suits you.”

Menopause specialist Dr Caoimhe Hartley says early menopause, when periods stop before the age of 45, affects approximately 5 per cent of women and premature menopause happens to 1 per cent of women, who stop having periods before they are 40. "When perimenopause starts, the ovaries begin to falter and stammer," explains Dr Hartley. "They lose control of the wheel and lurch from over-production of oestrogen and progesterone to not making enough. These fluctuations result in a hormone rollercoaster, with mood swings to match.

“This loss of hormones can be a wandering descent, over years or be a tumbling crash. And perimenopause, for many, can be challenging. A feeling of losing yourself, your confidence, feelings of irritability or tearfulness or rage which is abrupt and shocking. Women may experience PMS-type symptoms such as breast tenderness, weight gain, bloating and poor sleep – while some women describe an anxiety which is new and utterly debilitating.”

However, while some of the symptoms can be overwhelming, Dr Hartley says it’s vital for women to talk about what they are going through in order to receive the right help and get on with living their lives. “But we need to stop feeling ashamed of reaching out for help or information,” she says. “We need to embrace the privilege of ageing - there is so much life and love and living after menopause and we need to enable and empower women to enjoy every minute of it.”

Early or Perimenopause

The perimenopause starts on average four years before the final menstrual period. It is associated with hormonal fluctuations and physiological changes that can affect a women’s quality of life.

Physical symptoms:

– Irregular periods.
– Hot flushes.
– Night sweats.
– Heart palpitations.
– Decreased sex drive.
– Aching joints.
– Vaginal dryness.
– Increased frequency of passing urine.
– Shivering.

Psychological symptoms

– Increased moods swings.
– Poor sleep patterns.
– Increased anxiety and irritability.
– Depression.
– Forgetfulness.
– Lack of concentration.