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Menopause Is Not An Illness

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According to an article that appeared in Our Bodies, Ourselves (a resource book for women), major biological transitions for women such as childhood and menopause, are often "medicalized". (The article was published in 2006, but I believe it is still relevant.) What does medicalization mean? It refers to treating a natural process as if it were a medical condition that requires some sort of intervention. According to Our Bodies, Ourselves, the normal physical changes that are associated with menopause tend to be perceived as pathologies that require some kind of help.

The book goes on to say that, “Some medical researchers, health care providers, and drug companies have defined menopause as a hormone ‘deficiency’ condition due to ovarian ‘failure.’ According to this view, menopause is a condition like thyroid deficiency or diabetes. If it is left untreated, we will be at greater risk for many chronic diseases, a lower quality of life, and premature death.”

Does this ring a bell to anyone? Haven’t we all been bombarded with this type of message? This was the reason for the widespread use of hormone treatment for postmenopausal women from the 1960s to early in the 21st century. It was called hormone replacement therapy. Doctors thought that by raising estrogen levels all the unpleasantries of menopause would be dealt with, and women would feel younger. This was in spite of the fact that no long term clinical trials of hormone replacement therapy had been conducted, according to Our Bodes, Ourselves. This same book maintains that this hormone therapy carries more risks than benefits for women.

Interestingly, Our Bodies, Ourselves explains that characteristics considered undesirable for a woman, have historically been attributed to her reproductive organs and hormones. For example some women in the nineteenth century had hysterectomies in order to treat a wide array of problems. Specifically, higher education for girls was not encouraged because it was feared that over stimulation of their brains would wreck havoc on their reproductive organs. Good excuse for keeping them pregnant and barefoot in the kitchen.

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First of all, I want to say that I rarely respond to comments online because often it seems that one's response implies there is a 'right' or 'wrong' point of view on any issue.

In my opinion, it is infrequent when one opinion can logically be deemed either right or wrong. Like you Anna, I, too, hold a Masters degree and am a feminist, as are my three adult children, but I am very much aware of how my credentials and life achievements fall flat when I am attempting to address the concerns of menopause. I am not, I have discovered after living for 56 years, an expert on anything. I do, however, use my social and experiential learning to help inform about the discourse surrounding women's issues and issues of living in genral.

To a certain extent, I agree with the comments you make and those of the author of Our Bodies, Ourselves, and I respect you for raising those opinions. However, the arguments against medical interventions for dealing with menopausal concerns sound somewhat like the old adage: "Which came first...?"

While menopause is a natural biological phenomenon that women must experience, if they are lucky enough to live to a certain age, it does not follow that menopause is therefore always a joyful or healthy experience. Women's concerns during menopause are real. Vaginal atrophy, painful intercourse, lack of libido, anorgasmia, mood swings that take women from elation to rage, bone loss and fractures, hair loss, insomnia and hot flashes (the list goes on) are not pleasant, and they are often real physical disabilities for women. Is it not these complaints lodged by women themselves that has spurred the pharmaceutical industry to attempt to address these concerns?

Yes, corporations and industries seek to make financial profits in a variety of ways and attempt to position women to think of menopause as a medical problem. I do not think though that every medical researcher is simply 'out for the money'. Some do want to help alleviate women's suffering.

Women today are living longer than those of past generations. Is it 'wrong' to want to live out one's life free of physical and mental anguish, to continue to enjoy their sexuality and intimate relations? For me, there is no viable substitution for my loss of libido and sexual enjoyment. Although I am involved in myriad other activities, they cannot replace what has been taken from me naturally. I want to live out what short time I have on this earth savouring every minute and fully enjoying all aspects of being human. I suspect other women feel as I do.

So what course of action is open to menopausal and post-menopausal women who may feel as I do? Medical intervention by means of hormone replacement drugs, herbal remedies? To my mind, it is whatever works. While I resent being positioned to think that menopause is an illness, and bristle when I consider the pharmaceutical industry viewing me as a possible source for profit, I am glad that my concerns as a woman are at least being discussed and researched.

The conversation about these real concerns needs to continue. For too long women's complaints have been cast aside, cruelly labelled as whining. Just because something is natural biologically, no woman's real concerns should be ignored. New knowledge needs to be created, and likely will be if the conversation continues.


May 16, 2010 - 7:28am
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.


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