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Hormone therapy may be dangerous, but doing without is misery

sandra thompson
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© St. Petersburg Times
published August 3, 2002

I was packing for a trip to France last month when the news hit that the hormone replacement therapy study of the drugs I've been taking for 14 years was abruptly stopped because taking them is too dangerous.

This was supposed to be the study to end all studies, the one that would finally answer the question: Should we or shouldn't we?

I've read the results of studies on hormone replacement for years -- ever since I went on the drugs. I once canceled a subscription to the Harvard Women's Health Newsletter, because I knew everything in it before it came in the mail. My best friend from college -- who had a surgical menopause and went on HRT before I did -- and I called each other long-distance every time we learned something new or had a new symptom or side effect. What are you doing? we asked each other. What did your GYN say? Are you going to stay on it?

Is it good for you or is it bad for you? Who knew? The studies contradicted each other all the time. If we had taken the drugs for the promise of a healthier heart or bones or a longer life or whatever, we would have stopped. We're not stupid. But we were taking the drugs because we felt lousy without them. And, yes, we're still taking them.

It was not a case of the medical establishment putting something over on us. As a matter of fact, 14 years ago, it wasn't easy to get put on hormones. When I first had menopausal symptoms -- such as turning the wrong way onto a one-way street I drove on almost every day of my life; I'll skip the more graphic stuff -- I went to a male GYN recommended by my female internist. While my feet were in stirrups, after he ranted against the editorial policy of the newspaper I worked for, he told me, Oh, this is just how women your age are supposed to feel -- you should see women in their sixties!

I was 44.

So then I went to a female GYN and was told by her nurse that I didn't need to see the doctor, that everything I had described was perfectly natural. I didn't care if it was natural. I didn't want to feel that way.

I tried another female GYN, who had been on hormones for over 10 years. She said she remembered her mother during menopause and when she had seen the same symptoms, rushed to hormone replacement. She even had her 90-something mother, with breast cancer, on HRT.

It wasn't that I always felt great on the hormones; I just figured I would feel worse off them. I went off them for the first time a couple of months ago -- temporarily, on the advice of my GYN, because a uterine fibroid was acting up. (Would this happen if I hadn't been on hormones all these years?) After five drug-free weeks, I would not have left his office without a prescription. In fact, he wanted me to start a new HRT regimen a week from that date, and I said, "I need something now!"

When I got to France, in the chateau where we stayed with friends and friends of friends, I noticed one woman mixing some kind of drink in a little orange juice container every morning. When I asked what it was and what it was doing for her, she said it was soy, and she hoped it would control the hot flashes she had been having for five years. She was 50. I told her a friend here had started using wild yam cream for the same thing, and she rolled her eyes. It had worked for a couple of months, she said. Everything she had tried had worked, at first. She didn't want to take hormones, because she had a sister with breast cancer.

Back in Tampa, I was in the locker room at the gym talking to my friend on the wild yam cream about the aborted study. An older woman looked up from tying her sneaker. "I've been on hormones since 1978," she said. "I'm not stopping. My blood pressure is good, my heart is good. I'm healthy. They better not tell me I can't take them anymore!"

- Sandra Thompson is a writer living in Tampa. She can be reached at City Life appears on Saturday.

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