6,000 women call HRT hotline

Hormone replacement therapy can have some devastating side-effects, sufferers tell Sophie Goodchild
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The Independent Online
MAGGIE TUTTLE was a successful businesswoman, enjoying the middle years of her life with her boyfriend. Then she was prescribed HRT, the treatment devised to help women cope with the side-effects of the menopause. Her hair fell out, her vision was affected and she lost both her lover and her business.

Now she has remortgaged her home to pay for the first conference on HRT which will be held next month. The organisers aim to give women a chance to address the possible risks of synthetic hormone treatments which were introduced as a treatment for the side-effects of the menopause more than 30 years ago.

Ms Tuttle is not alone - more than 6,000 women have called a Hormone Replacement Therapy telephone hotline since it was opened two years ago to report a series of severe side-effects of the menopause treatment. They include headaches, weight loss and thrombosis. In some cases, women have described harrowing experiences of teeth and hair falling out and have blamed HRT for causing them to develop cancer.

The Menopausal Helpline, which advises callers about side-effects of HRT and is helping run next month's conference in Brighton, says women are treated "like guinea pigs". It is calling on the Department of Health to ensure that women are made aware of natural alternatives rather than being told that HRT is the only option.

HRT is used by one-in-five menopausal women, and this figure is expected to rise to one-in-three by the end of the century. There is no conclusive proof that the treatment can cause side-effects, but studies have shown that HRT can increase the risk of breast cancer and blood clots.

Ms Tuttle, who founded the helpline, says that although her hair has now grown back the HRT she took to counter irregular menstruation has had an irreversible effect on her life.

"I've lost so many years of my life. Every hair on my body fell out and now I've had to have my eyebrows tattooed. The headaches were like being dragged around by a caveman. My vision was very blurred and I could barely lift my arms because I put on two stone.

"There is no history of illness like this in the family but the doctors didn't see the link with HRT and kept trying me on different doses. I just want to stop women in future suffering what we have suffered. There should be other treatments on offer. If you go to your doctor the choice is HRT or to suffer by yourself," she said.

The effect of HRT on Pamela Kaufman, a television producer, was even more dramatic. Before treatment, she could fit into a size 34C bra. By the end, she was wearing a size 44H bra and her weight had shot up from 10.5 to 15.5 stones.

Ms Kaufman was later told that the HRT implant she was given after a hysterectomy was 10 times the dose she needed. With the help of a rigid diet and breast reduction, she has lost weight but feels doctors should never have treated her with HRT.

"I was told it was standard practice to have HRT when I had a hysterectomy. I didn't have a choice. The doctor told me, 'You don't want to lose your looks'.

"If doctors had checked my oestrogen levels I would never have been put on HRT. We've had enough of bucket medicine. Doctors should make better checks before they give HRT to people. The worst moment was when I was on a plane and I could not get my strap round me. The air stewardess called out: 'Have we got an extension? This belt does not fit.'

"HRT is a drug fuelled on fear and hope - the fear of osteoporosis and the hope of eternal youth. Drug companies marketing the menopause have made an illness out of it when it's a natural effect of ageing.

"I'm 50 and I don't expect to be beautiful but I do want to grow old gracefully. Yet the last five years have been like living in another body."

Dr Marilyn Glenville, who runs holistic clinics for women, believes that HRT can intefere with the body's hormone balance. She has been inundated by calls from women who have put on weight after treatment.

"My concern is that women are not offered a choice. They are told it's HRT or nothing. It's being treated like an illness and if you are given excess oestrogen it's going to build up in the body and these cells can mutate into cancer cells.

"Women should know what choices they have got so they can make an informed decision. Those who go through a premature menopause, which is a medical condition, may need HRT, but that's not the same as women in their fifties who go through a natural stage in life."

Dr Malcolm Whitehead, a consultant gynaecologist at King's College Hospital, London, disagrees. He says the advantages of HRT outweigh any problems: "We see thousands of women a week in our clinics and in 25 years I've only seen a handful with these problems. I have patients who say they have skin problems but have never taken HRT.

"You are just as likely to get breast cancer by normal alcohol consumption as you are with HRT. It can reduce the risk of heart disease by up to 40 per cent," he said.

Tickets for the conference on 26 September are pounds 29.95, from: HRT Conference, PO Box 2019, Wickford, Essex, SS12 9RU.