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‘The change is that not only have women had enough, we’re now happy to say so’: Mariella Frostrup on need for action

© Ken McKay/ITV/ShutterstockMariella Frostrup
Mariella Frostrup

Her refusal to suffer the menopause in silence helped launch a national taboo-busting conversation.

However, while broadcaster Mariella Frostrup is happy things are changing, she fears they are not changing fast enough.

It’s been four years since she became one of the first high-profile women to share her own experience in a landmark BBC documentary, The Truth About The Menopause. She inspired other women to raise their voice for better treatment and greater awareness.

“Things are definitely changing and that is to be welcomed, but I don’t think they’ve changed significantly enough,” Frostrup said. “There are still changes that need to be made. But the one thing that has changed – and that is fantastic to see – is just that women have had enough. And they are talking about it.

“They are happy to say the word menopause and are not ashamed or embarrassed about a perfectly natural thing.”

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Frostrup endured two years of baffling symptoms before she realised she was menopausal. “To be honest, I wish I could say my journey was particularly unique, but I’ve realised that most women stumble into the menopause completely ignorant about what’s about to happen to them,” she told The Post.

“In fact most of us, as we stumble, are very deeply into it before we understand we are and what it is. And that’s a major problem.

“I spent two years with bad insomnia, panic attacks, worrying about world peace and whether I had taken the baked potatoes out of the oven with the same level of anxiousness. I had no idea these could be menopausal symptoms. I thought you had hot flushes, felt pretty terrible, people curled their lips when you talked about it and you kind of just got on with it. I had no sense it was impending and no idea of any of the other things that I have subsequently discovered, that we need to be clued up as women in terms of protecting our health.

“The trouble with not realising that you are in the throes of the menopause or perimenopause until you’re deeply in it is that there are lots of health conditions that are severely impacted by fluctuating hormones and, unless you do something to support yourself, you can end up really sick. I was osteoporotic, which is on the cusp of osteoporosis, when I was finally diagnosed.

“I had to go private to get answers in the end. I’m lucky I was able to afford to do that. Most women are not in that situation.”

One of the first things Frostrup’s gynaecologist did was send her for a bone density test. “I couldn’t understand why,” she said. “All I could think was, ‘I haven’t slept for two years, who cares about my bones?’. I discovered that osteoporosis is one of the most severe conditions you can end up experiencing as a result of losing your hormones.

“After my bone density scan, my doctor said, ‘We need to get you on an HRT immediately because it actually reverses the osteopenia.’ But these are the things women don’t know. I was never told any of that.

“I couldn’t understand why my poor mother-in-law, every time she takes five steps, snaps another bone. I had no idea of that significance because she was of the generation who didn’t take HRT because they thought it was too dangerous. Now she’s in danger of breaking bones on a daily basis.”

Mother-of-two Frostrup, who turns 60 later this year, currently uses bi-identical HRT, which copies the chemical make up of your body, a combination of an estrogen gel and a progesterone pill. And while the broadcaster and journalist admits she’s come across women who are anxious about HRT, she had no hesitation.

Frostrup, who has just released the paperback of Cracking The Menopause: While Keeping Yourself Together, co-written with Alice Smellie, said: “We’re led to think that only a small number of women can take it safely but that’s just not true. The large majority of women could take it very safely. There are 16 million menopausal women in the British Isles and only 550,000 on HRT.”

Frostrup is a firm believer that HRT can change lives. After all, she has first-hand experience. “Now I sleep, I’m not osteoporotic anymore. My bone density reverted to healthy which is a near miracle,” she said. “I still have bouts of sleeplessness which I think is just part of growing older. It’s not an absolute total cure, but I’ve functioned at full capacity for the past decade, since I realised I was menopausal, and that would not have been possible for me had I not been diagnosed and supported.”

Of course, Frostrup says, it should be a choice – but if women want HRT they should have access to it and be able to take it for as long as they feel it helps. “You can choose not to but you absolutely should be offered it,” she said. “It’s not rocket science, is it? You have a catastrophic decrease in hormone levels, hormones that you need to stay healthy, and, happily thanks to modern science, we can supplement them. It’s just an insane state of affairs which speaks an awful lot to how women are bullied culturally and societally rather than good sense.

“I’m only interested in the science – and the science says bi-identical HRT for the majority of women will be of huge benefit during a liminal phase in your life, though most people who have actually studied menopause, all say don’t stop taking it.

“I mean there are crimes against women being committed in terms of the ignorance with which this period of our lives is treated.

“The fact that it’s a social economic decision for some women still, that women are priced out of being able to afford HRT if they want to take it, is outrageous,” she said. “These are the things that need to change.

“I’ve campaigned since I was 25 and worked with Bob Geldof on Band Aid and Live Aid and Comic Relief and I am devoted to women’s equality – but this is the one that I’m most frustrated and animated by because it’s just a travesty that we are in this situation.

“It’s completely unnecessary and it’s entirely the result of hundreds of years of menopause being misdiagnosed, misrepresented by half of the population who never experience it.”

Cracking The Menopause: While Keeping Yourself Together, by Mariella Frostrup and Alice Smellie, is out now