Women's Health

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:14 am on 10th June 1988.

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Photo of Mrs Teresa Gorman Mrs Teresa Gorman , Billericay 11:14 am, 10th June 1988

Perhaps. Women in this age group were often embarrassed and felt guilty. In many instances the approach of others was to this effect, "Well, you are getting old and you must put up with the consequences, just as your mother and grannie did." When the event hit me, as it does every woman eventually if she lives long enough, and I started to experience horrible hot flushes and other symptoms, I went to find treatment. As my hon. Friend the Minister said in her opening remarks, it is true that women tend to put up with a great deal that a man would normally go to his doctor to complain about. I am one of those real women who usually do not put with things. Accordingly, I went to find help, but it was not easy.

I shall refer briefly to some of the awful things that can happen. There are awful hot flushes, which are embarrassing when one is in a room that is full of people. The woman might say "Oh, my God, it is hot in here." Everyone looks round and says, "It is not really. It is you." It is rather like saying to a crowd of strangers, "I am getting old."

My wrists and ankles began to hurt. My ankles became so painful that I could hardly get to the top of my house—incidentally, it has 70 steps. My wrists became so painful that I could not cut a slice of bread. I had to buy sliced bread. Incidentally, I could tell the hon. Member for Barking (Ms. Richardson) where she could buy good sliced wholemeal bread in Brixton. I drive through Brixton almost every other day and I know where it is possible to buy good wholemeal bread and yoghurt. I am fond of Greek yoghurt. It is possible to buy some good West Indian bread, which is really delicious. It is brown and moist and lasts for ages. I buy it regularly.

As I was saying, I could not cut a loaf of bread because my wrists were so painful. I was running a business and when I returned home at about 7 o'clock I was knocked out, as it were. I was tired, listless, dreary and irritable. Worst of all, I started forgetting things. This meant that I missed appointments. I began to think that if these were the symptoms of becoming old at the age of about 40, I would rather be dead. I felt that I could not face another 30 years of them.

I was fortunate. I am a biologist by training and so I know a little about these things. I went to King's College hospital, which has a menopausal clinic that is one of the most prominent in the world. It is a world leader I got myself on hormone replacement and it reconstructed me. I am a resurrected woman. I would have fallen to pieces had it not been for the treatment.

When I saw the facilities at King's I realised that the opportunity for women to discover the marvellous treatment that has helped me enormously was scant. There are only about a dozen such clinics in the country. I asked those at King's who had helped me how I could help them. They said that they wanted to raise money for a unit that they could make a national research and development centre, and I started getting a committee together to do this work. In the meantime I was elected to Parliament. That meant that everything came out in the open about me—hormones, the menopause and my age. I decided that I might as well go for broke. I wrote an article for a newspaper that was to this effect, "Yes, I am over 50. Yes, I am menopausal. Yes, I have hormone replacement therapy. Yes, it is terrific." The response was 10,000 letters from women saying that they thanked God that someone was talking about the subject. Some of the letters set out horrific stories of broken marriages and women driving their kids mad because they were so irritable. I realised that there was a desperate, crying need to provide help for women in this position.

Since I have come out, as it were, I have met an enormous number of women who are prepared to admit that they receive hormone replacement treatment. These include Dora Bryan, Dot of EastEnders, Diana Sheridan and many other famous women. I shall not give the House the whole list now. The gynaecologist to the Queen is a big supporter of it. He believes that it can help enormously and is on record as saying so.

My experience has helped to highlight one aspect of women's medicine which was perhaps hidden and secretive, and about which women felt bad. A third of women have these desperately awful symptoms, another third have them fairly badly and some do not have them. One is unfortunate if one's doctor is a woman who has not experienced these symptoms because she will not be sympathetic, nor, I am sad to say, will many general practitioners.

The Minister said that this treatment is available on the Health Service, but that does not mean that a woman will always find a doctor willing to grant it to her. If she does, he may not understand all the nuances. There are about 20 different varieties of hormone involved, like baked beans. She needs a specialist and if her doctor gives her a treatment which does not work or affects her badly, often there is nowhere to go to see a specialist. we need more menopause specialists.

We have 9 million menopausal women, many of whom are suffering symptoms, some of which they can see, such as flushing, but many which go on inside the body insidiously. Outside we may become wrinkly but inside we are growing crumbly. Our bones, arteries and memory are all being affected. There is now masses of evidence, as the Minister pointed out, linking the lack of female hormones which are lost at the menopause with osteoporosis. I am delighted at the support and help that she has given to the National Osteoporosis Society. I am working closely with it and between us we want to set up special places where women can go.

Unseen symptoms include arterial problems. Arteries and veins decay, leading to strokes, which are another aspect of the loss of female hormones. That is being studied at King's College hospital, which also has a unit studying the mental and psychological effects of the loss of hormones. Many women undoubtedly suffer from deep depression and sometimes their doctor gives them tranquillisers or pep pills, which cost a fortune and which the doctor continues to prescribe for donkey's years. They cause side effects. The Minister said that she was not keen on on-going drug treatments over many years. People get hooked on tranquillisers. That is not necessary if more research is done on this subject.

The Minister's answer to osteoporosis is to take more exercise. That may be good advice for those under 40, but there is not much one can do to increase one's bone mass when one is over 40, except perhaps the middle bits. I am assured that the end bits which snap off with wrist and hip fractures are not particularly affected. Incidentally, many people die of jogging.

Some people worry about the side effects of this hormone replacement treatment. Whenever I become enthusiastic about it, which I frequently do, the scare of cancer is raised. We must meet that anxiety and we can probably do more research on that. Many women who have come to our new clinic, which I have helped to open, are discovered to have other conditions when they come in for menopause symptoms. They can then be sent on for other treatments.

Originally, American women with this problem were given only oestrogen. I do not want to get too technical. That hormone causes the lining of the womb to build up and if one does not get rid of it, as one does naturally when one is younger in the form of a period, it can become cancerous. That was not realised early on, but now it has been discovered and women are given a balance of hormones, similarly to those produced when young, so that the lining of the womb is shed periodically. That is good news for the tampon makers. In that way, women do not risk cancer of the uterus. There is a possible link with breast cancer which is under investigation, but by having frequent checks for hormone replacement therapy, women are more likely to be screened and mammogrammed. I go every six months and have a mammogram there. As far as we know, there is no link between the treatment and cervical cancer.

About a third of all Health Service beds, for example in orthopaedic wards, are used by women with problems linked to the menopause. Heart attacks rocket in older women. They are practically unknown in young women because they produce hormones, but when that stops, the rate of heart attacks in women catches up with that in men. Therefore, many menopausal women, for example, with arterial problems or suffering from strokes, are in hospital care. There are 10 women for every man in institutions for the senile because the menopause has a profound effect on one's mental capacity. Women reach the point, sometimes quite young, when they cannot remember how to light the gas stove. That is hard to believe, but it is true. They forget how to do as simple a task as that. We all know about women arrested for shoplifting and blaming it on their age, and often that is to blame. American evidence shows a distinct link between Alzheimer's disease and the loss of hormones, as witnessed by the number of older women, compared with men, suffering from it. That is a further area for research.

In America, this treatment has been used almost since the last war. At least women know about it there, which British women do not. Perhaps a third of American women take this type of help, so it is not a newfangled idea just to keep women young, although there is nothing wrong with that. If we do not have to get old, why bother? The treatment will not make us live for ever. We will go on for our four score years and 10. I say that because many women are living well into their eighties. We are talking about the quality of life. Are we going to be little old ladies, stooped with osteoporosis, having lost five or six inches in our spine and unable to remember what we did two seconds ago, or are we to be in the fantastic condition of someone like the Queen Mother, who is healthy, articulate, intelligent, bright and active?