Claire, 48 from Kent shares her experience with us.
At the age of 43 I found my body was not quite working correctly.
It was difficult falling sleep, I was tired all day, and my digestion was sluggish. I was suffering bloating and constipation that resulted in pain, and a flu-like feeling that I couldn’t shift. Because I instinctively felt it was a cyclical thing (my periods were changing) and I was worried about cancer I asked a young doctor at my GP surgery, where I had barely shown my face in the preceding years, to use my health cover and refer me to a gynaecologist. She treated me kindly but was unsure of the reason for the pain, but a laparoscopy found fibroids. She mentioned to me as I woke from the anaesthetic that, “your hormones are nowhere near what I would expect for a woman your age, your menopause is nearer than you think”. This phrase would come back to me time and again over the next few years.
I woke the following January with what I thought was flu. Simply unable to move out of bed for a couple of weeks and it refused to clear up.
The pain got worse, I was referred to a gastroenterologist who performed a colonoscopy and declared that my bowel was not working as it should be. When asked why he couldn’t explain it, simply that, “some people are just like this”. He prescribed laxatives and said I would have to take them for life.
I woke the following January with what I thought was flu. Simply unable to move out of bed for a couple of weeks and it refused to clear up. Sore throat, feeling hot, sweaty and achy. I went to my GP and he could see how run down I was. I couldn’t look after my family the way I was used to, I was “only” a housewife and mum but every day life was a real struggle. He chuckled and offered to, “sign me off for a rest” for a week. He did a blood test. I asked for a hormone test but he said I wasn’t menopausal. He rang a week later saying my vitamin D was very low and that I should take supplements for a few months and I would feel much better. The following years are a blur of worsening symptoms. My periods stopped for the summer, and I went downhill rapidly.
Breathless and weak on some days, I found myself having to sit half way up the stairs for a rest.
The worst symptom was the next one to develop; body-wide pain in my muscles and joints. It was on so many levels and so difficult to describe. My joints were stiff and sore, particularly in the morning when it took a good hour to get moving. My muscles buzzed and burned in pain from the moment I opened my eyes in the morning, but I had restless legs at night. At this point fatigue had taken over from insomnia. Breathless and weak on some days, I found myself having to sit half way up the stairs for a rest. It was like wearing a concrete overcoat, my brain was in a fog and every step was a struggle. My only relief was when I was asleep.
I felt desperate enough to see a private GP. He referred me to a rheumatologist but kept mentioning depression, perhaps I had not come to terms with my mum’s death, my infertility, or the miscarriage I had had 10 years before. He offered counselling. I swore to him that I was not depressed or unhappy, this was a cyclical thing that seemed to get worse when my periods stopped. It was logical to me but I couldn’t make anyone understand.
I felt I was living with a lifelong chronic disease without the benefit of a diagnosis or treatment
The rheumatologist I saw dismissed any form of arthritis. He diagnosed fiibromyalgia and psychological distress. I again tried to bring up the subject of hormones and that I had had problems throughout my life, I had been diagnosed with PCOS in my 20s and infertility in my 30s. IVF had failed twice. He acknowledged that sometimes women have, “extreme reactions to the withdrawal of estrogen” and recommended I went back to my GP and get him to prescribe the pill for a month to see if it made a difference.
Filled with hope, I returned to the surgery. I felt I was living with a lifelong chronic disease without the benefit of a diagnosis or treatment. It had impacted on my life so severely. My husband, dad, and close friends who were the same age were supportive, never once doubting that I was in genuine pain and not just avoiding my responsibilities. However, the GP said that it would be unwise of him to, “prescribe estrogen to a woman your age” and offered antidepressants or amitriptyline for pain.
My periods returned for a while and for one week out of 5 I felt normal so I battled on thinking I was doing the right thing.
I dug out the blood results that the gynae had mentioned 3 years before and I begged him for a hormonal blood test to see if I was nearing the menopause, and he found that my levels were indeed low. He seemed surprised. I was 46. My periods returned for a while and for one week out of 5 I felt normal so I battled on thinking I was doing the right thing. I had added over a stone onto my small 8 stone frame and I had a few wrinkles but I didn’t care about getting older or how I looked, I just wanted my body to function.
Months later, after developing heartburn and a burning painful nausea I yet again braved the GP. He prescribed Zantac but said, “as I had had doctors crawling all over me” he didn’t think that any more tests were necessary. I slumped tearfully on his desk and he said that prozac was sometimes helpful for ladies like me.
The final straw for me was a new anxiety that developed rapidly. I worried irrationally about everything. A motorway trip with my husband (when he could persuade me out of the house and I felt well enough) became a white knuckle ride with me clinging to the seat. Once my mind was starting to fail rather than just my body I booked an appointment with a menopause specialist. I had reached rock bottom.
Five weeks on and I still cannot believe the difference. Some symptoms have disappeared while others have reduced considerably. I feel more like me, pain free and energetic.
My blood results at this point were extremely low in vital hormones, at a post-menopausal level, or in the doctor’s words, “virtually nothing”. As I explained my fear of HRT, she asked what I was frightened of. Then she said that my hormones were in such a state that I was probably frightened of everything. She was right. She prescribed a low dose bioidentical hormone cream and I agreed to give it a go.
Five weeks on and I still cannot believe the difference. Some symptoms have disappeared while others have reduced considerably. I feel more like me, pain free and energetic. Something I barely remember. HRT is not for everyone, and my mum was on it in the 1980s for a long time. She developed breast cancer and told me to avoid it. But I have faith that things have moved on. I am monitored, and I take it knowing what the risks might be. The alternative is too awful to contemplate. The medical profession didn’t help me because my symptoms were unusual and quite severe. The HRT results speak for themselves. I walked 9 km yesterday and had energy to spare. People need to know that the menopause is more than hot flushes and that it is not the same for everyone.