Editor-At-Large: A woman's right to choose HRT

No minister has apologised to the millions of women whose lives they blighted


A public apology for a past mistake has become highly fashionable – modern touchy-feely politicians have been quick to see the advantages of a well-timed dollop of humility, saying sorry for slavery, Bloody Sunday, the Irish Famine and "regrets" (apology-lite) for the loss of life in Iraq. The list is endless. But I can't recall any health ministers, let alone prime ministers, apologising to millions of British women who've had their lives blighted for the past decade because of incompetent interpretation of clinical data. If men had periods, then the controversy over HRT would have been nailed down years ago. Instead, based on a misleading international study that was halted in 2002, three years early, when the risk of developing breast cancer and heart problems as a result of taking HRT was vastly overstated.

The result was instant – half of all the women who were taking HRT stopped, and many went on to experience debilitating symptoms of the menopause: hot flushes and mood swings, not to mention brittle bones, which were entirely preventable. British experts carried out their own study in 2003 and decided that HRT doubled the risk of breast cancer. Doctors were reluctant to prescribe the drug and more women suffered. I refused to listen to the scaremongers, but I could afford a private gynaecologist who remained sceptical and who provided me with different information. I also had regular smear tests for cervical cancer, and annual mammograms, something denied to most women on the NHS in those days.

By 2007, international experts were saying that being obese, inactive and drinking alcohol was just as likely (if not more so) to increase the risk of breast cancer. Now, the same experts involved in the 2002 study have "re-evaluated" it and declared their findings were wrong, that too many older women were included, distorting the findings. Now, we are told, HRT can cut the risk of heart attacks and reduce the risk of strokes. They now say the risk of breast cancer is "extremely" low for women in their fifties and only increases a little after seven years.

The NHS has yet to re-evaluate its position. At present, doctors only prescribe HRT to women in their fifties for as short a time as possible, regardless of whether they will enjoy a more comfortable life. By the way, I'm not interested in what Jenni Murray says – as a high-profile, self-confessed overweight female, she is whipping up fear by writing that HRT "gave" her cancer. There are other factors, such as genetics, involved.

All I know is that no one has apologised for this mess. Every woman deserves unbiased, properly verified information when faced with such a momentous decision as taking HRT. Sadly, we've been badly let down, and hysteria will continue to cloud what is, after all, a woman's right to choose. I have no intention of giving up HRT, no matter what my (male) NHS doctor says.

Designer weeds

A day at Chelsea Flower Show last week confirmed my expectations: good taste was in short supply and weeds are the new rock'n'roll in the gardening world. Later this year, I plan to help raise funds to restore the childhood home of the romantic poet and walker John Clare by walking part of his journey from a mental hospital in Epping Forest back to where he grew up near Peterborough. Adam Frost's Clare-inspired little garden, packed with wild hedgerow plants and shady corners, won a Gold Medal. Top prize for Best in Show was awarded to Cleve West for another tasteful, very traditional garden with a wonderful herbaceous border. These islands of rustic charm stood out among the hideous sculptures, weird free-form seating, and canvas hammocks. Only at Chelsea would a man shout at me to "come and sit in my pod"! That wasn't the only bizarre line. Chatting to a couple who specialised in sweet peas, I was shown a purple flower and told: "This one was born in Doncaster."

Music magic

Ever wondered what it feels like to play in a top orchestra? At the Science Museum, the new Universe of Sound installation cleverly blends multi-camera digital recordings of the Philharmonia Orchestra performing Holst's The Planets with surround sound. You can even attempt to conduct or play the percussion using the latest interactive technology. Walking from one room to another, the sound is balanced to focus on the particular section of the 132-strong orchestra you see. Most impressive is the concentration of the musicians and their huge respect for the conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen. Sadly, this piece moves on before the Proms, but I hope it brings a new audience to the Royal Albert Hall this summer.

Umbrella tree

I've escaped from London, where my neighbourhood was humming with busy-looking skinny people in black clutching their iPads along with their skinny drinks. Pink banners on lampposts proclaimed "Clerkenwell Design Week May 22-24". Sorry to be picky, but isn't that just three days, not a whole week? Clerkenwell is home to more architects and designers than any other London borough – I hope they appreciated the wacky "interventions" in the public spaces. The churchyard opposite my house was home to an ugly forest of real pink umbrellas mounted on scaffolding posts, by Drasci Studio, entitled Spring Forest. A sign reassured me that "after dismantling, each component will be reused in different contexts, with no waste". Perhaps one context will be rain.

Art saves a town

Forget elected mayors and police commissioners, what every town trying to relaunch itself is a King or Queen – an inspirational figure from the arts who'll draw crowds to stand in awe. Queen Tracey returned home to Margate on Friday night opening her one-woman show at the Turner Contemporary, which shimmered in the perfect summer evening light. Tracey's show has only one subject – her life: her body, her relationships. It's the ultimate all-about-me confessional. The watercolours are stunning, but it's the large-scale embroideries which are the real revelation, conveying her tortured brushstrokes perfectly. As the blazing sun dropped into the sea, the party continued to the beach front Rokka bar, where I saw culture Minister Ed Vaizey eating fish and chips– just one of the half a million visitors who have come to the town since the gallery his department helped fund opened, three times the estimate, spending nearly £14m in the area. Queen Tracey will get those numbers soaring this summer, and help Margate get back on its feet.

News in briefs

Not a day passes without more negative stories about the Olympics: samples from this past week included the projected four-hour wait at Heathrow and the ludicrously named Will.i.am's thankfully brief stint as a torch-bearer, criticised by some as yet another opportunity for him to brag about himself on Twitter and spell the name of the place he graced with his presence (Taunton) wrong. Tickets for some events can still be purchased from foreign Olympic websites, although one event has sold out almost straightaway. To coin Mrs Merton, what is it about these athletic-looking women in their unfeasibly small, tight black pants that turns beach volleyball into a medal-worthy sport? The British women's team staged a game near Big Ben. I don't know why, but the pants looked nice.

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