Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

Feeling Uncertainty, Confusion, and Frustration about Menopause

November 10th, 2011 by Heather Dillaway

Last Friday I attended a conference on autoethnography and was privileged enough to listen to Carolyn Ellis give the keynote speech on this new and upcoming qualitative methodology.  Sitting there and listening to Ellis talk about the need for all of us to be reflexive and put ourselves into our research projects, I realized that I probably do need to acknowledge my own feelings of uncertainty and frustration as I study menopause and midlife. Therefore, this blog entry is for you, Carolyn Ellis, as I am inspired by you to be better from now on about acknowledging the connections between me and my work and trying to understand myself as a research instrument as I seek to understand menopause and midlife better.

The reasons I really started studying menopause are the very reasons why I’m still studying it but also frustrated by it. In the mid to late 1990s, my experiences as a birth control counselor at Planned Parenthood in Delaware and Michigan led me to realize that plenty of middle-aged women don’t understand what’s happening to them when they start to have irregular periods in perimenopause. I also watched my mother begin perimenopause in the mid 1990s and be confused and embarrassed to talk about the experience when she had always been the first one who always wanted to talk about pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding, and birth control (“What was so confusing about menopause?,” I thought).  I’ve now formally studied and written about women’s thoughts and experiences of menopause since 1999. All along, the terminology and definitions of menopause have been as problematic for me as for the women I’ve studied. I’ve listened to menopausal women who tell me that they are completely confused about biomedical terminology for their life stage and completely baffled about what they’re going through.  I’ve heard them talk about how doctors and other women they talk to are just as confused as they are. What is this thing they’re going through? I’ve talked to other feminist social scientists and humanities scholars who think we should call menopause “reproductive aging” or “the menopause transition” to signify that variation over time is really the only guaranteed experience at this time of life. Endocrinologists and biologists turn around and tell me that the term “reproductive aging” is faulty because all that term signifies is that we are all maturing from birth on – that it is an empty term signifying nothing. I listen to endocrinologists, epidemiologists, public health educators, women’s health advocates, menstrual activist researchers, biologists, and clinical/biomedical researchers who are all ready with their own take on what terminology and definition is “best” for describing this time of life. Some argue that there is a strict three-phase model of perimenopause, menopause, and postmenopause that we should follow. Some argue for a five or even seven stage model for “menopause,” parsing out pre, post, early and late stages of the menstrual life course (such as early and late  premenopause, early and late perimenopause, menopause, early and late postmenopause, etc.). Some argue that perimenopause is really the only “stage” of “menopause” or late reproductive life that women really want to know about because that is when all the (negative) symptoms come. I hear others argue that “menopause” and “postmenopause” are the same thing, or are that these are conflated terms that mean nothing, and that both of these terms should be scrapped. (Yet then I hear individual women I interview tell me that postmenopause is as frustrating as perimenopause.) I hear other researchers say that EVERY term associated with menopause or reproductive aging is faulty. If I listen to individual menopausal women, they tell me the same. Two months ago, I did a presentation on midlife in general, and a feminist humanities scholar (whom I respect quite a bit) told me I shouldn’t be using the term “midlife” at all, because it is a non-term itself, defined by nothing. If I think about all of the terms I associate with menopause – menopause, the climacteric, the change, the change of life, perimenopause, postmenopause, the late reproductive years, the menopause transition, women’s midlife transition, reproductive aging, etc. – I don’t even know what terms I should be using. Over time I have thought that the best case scenario is just to use the term that women themselves use (therefore I used the word “menopause” a lot to describe a whole transition, or adopted the term “reproductive aging” when urged by feminist scholars to do so in order to define a broader transition). But, now, I’ve been critiqued recently for not correcting individual women when they use the “wrong” term to describe what they’re going through.

I find myself at a loss for what to do next, and how to describe the very thing I study. One thing I’ve definitely realized is that I am as confused and frustrated about how to talk about menopause sometimes as the women who are actually going through this transition. I’ve also realized that researchers, educators, and health care providers who often have the same goals (i.e., promoting a better understanding of women’s health experiences and health concerns) cannot agree on how to term or define the very things they study. We come to stalemates and standstills and haven’t gotten very far. So far we’ve had trouble making compromises amongst each other about how to study the topic together, and can’t always talk across disciplinary or applied/research lines. I’ve seen frustration, confusion, and uncertainty among the very researchers that are supposed to be the experts on these topics.

Latest News on Hormone Therapy

June 23rd, 2010 by Elizabeth Kissling
Wellcome Library, London // CC 2.0

Wellcome Library, London // CC 2.0

The Endocrine Society has released a new, peer-reviewed statement on the risks and benefits of hormone therapy for menopausal women. The upshot is that risks and benefits vary depending on the age of the patient and the length of time since menopause:

One interesting finding . . . was that women who start hormone therapy within 10 years of menopause have a 30% to 40% reduction in total mortality.

In addition, in the 50 to 55 age group the task force concluded that hormone therapy reduced hot flashes and overactive bladder and that vaginal estrogen reduced recurrent urinary tract infections. The evidence also showed that hormone therapy reduced pain on intercourse and improved quality of life.

Given that there are thousands of lawsuits pending over the role of HT in breast cancer, I was especially interested in this nugget of new information:

“Our conclusion is that [the estrogen/progestin hormone combination] didn’t cause breast cancer — it caused preexisting tumors to grow to a size where they became detectable.”

Newsflash: Women get older with or without hormone therapy

January 5th, 2010 by Elizabeth Kissling

Cover of journal MENOPAUSEAs we have often noted here, one of the key reasons the marketing of hormone therapy for menopausal women has been so successful is the misguided belief that menopause is an estrogen-deficiency disease. Among other purported disadvantages of the decline in estrogen that accompanies normal aging was the belief that this decline caused muscle loss and other declines in physical functioning. (Muscle cells have receptors for estrogen, and recent research has linked higher blood levels of the hormone to greater muscle strength in elderly women.)

But the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) is still providing new information about the lack of benefits of HT. (For those who are new around here, the WHI is a large US clinical trial begun in 1991, in which thousands of postmenopausal women were randomly assigned to take either HT or placebo pills. The study was abruptly ended ahead of schedule in 2002, when researchers discovered that the women taking the hormones had higher risks of heart attack, stroke, breast cancer, and blood clots – the very conditions the drugs were assumed to prevent – than placebo users.) In a new study based on a subgroup of 2400 women to be published in a forthcoming issue of Menopause (February 2010), both the women using HT and the placebo groups showed similar dips in muscle strength and walking speed over six years. In other words, women get older and show physical indications of aging with or without hormone therapy.

Bioidentical Balderdash

January 1st, 2010 by Chris Hitchcock

The bioidentical hormone therapy industry has been getting a bad rap lately in the US, and this press release is an example of why. Among other things, the writer confuses estrogen and progesterone, in one paragraph saying their product is a “safe and scientifically-proven, all-natural estrogen delivery cream[]”, and in the next describing it as a “natural progesterone cream” (emphasis is mine). Moreover, the press release springboards from another estrogen-positive press release that claims that estrogen may be the cure for female depression, citing an ob/gyn author of a book, and promoting a soon-to-be-launched web page.

So, in one breath the product is an estrogen delivery cream that will help with low estrogen, but in the next breath (on the linked product page) it is argued that it will help with estrogen that is too high (which is more accurate). The product website emphasizes that  it is “without dangerous pharmaceuticals”:

This remarkable product contains NO risky synthetic estrogens or progestins. [Product] Cream is similar to the progesterone your body naturally produces, so there are no worries about dangerous interactions or nasty side effects.

It’s been said that there are no side effects, there are just effects. It is odd to marry this claim that their product won’t have nasty side effects (because it is like the progesterone in your body) with the claim that progesterone cream will balance out the nasty effects of your own high estrogen levels.

Progesterone cream may well be better tolerated, but just because it’s natural, doesn’t make it so.

And, interestingly, despite being anti-big Pharma, the article adopts the pharmaceutical industry’s language of menopause as “estrogen deficiency” that has been so helpful to those who would market “hormone replacement therapy” as a cure for all female ageing. As is still common, it is assumed that perimenopause (the transition leading up to the last period) is a time of dropping estrogen. There’s also the assumption that the challenging issues of midlife are necessarily hormonal (rather than multi-faceted, including not only biological changes, but also cultural views of ageing, social context, socioeconomic issues, divorce-related poverty, even spiritual and psychological development).

It’s unfortunate that bioidentical has come to be associated with fuzzy thinking and poorly supported claims, because there are good, solid, well-researched arguments in favour of using naturally occurring molecules for therapy, particularly for hot flushes and night sweats. We’re analyzing data from the first randomized placebo-controlled trial of oral micronized progesterone for hot flushes and night sweats in early menopause, and we should have some data later this year to report.

It’s also worth noting that other countries do it differently – Canadians can buy progesterone cream such as this, but they do it with a prescription, at a specified dose, and for a particular issue. And people who try to sell it over the counter in a health store are prosecuted.

Readers should note that statements published in re: Cycling are those of individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Society as a whole.