When Davina McCall began taking HRT for debilitating peri-menopausal symptoms, she was so embarrassed that she lied to her friends about it. In fact, as the television presenter says in the Channel 4 documentaryshe was advised not to talk about the subject at all as it was “ageing and unsavoury”.
Thankfully, McCall didn’t heed the misguided advice and instead has been to the forefront in fighting against the shame and stigma around the menopause.
It’s a topic that’s gaining momentum in Ireland too — RTÉ’s Liveline recently set up a dedicated phone line after being inundated with women wanting to talk about how they struggled to get support for life-limiting symptoms which were often dismissed by the medical profession.
The Channel 4 programme opens with McCall in the swimming pool, a fitting metaphor for the peri-menopausal experience, which can leave many women struggling with brain fog and memory issues so bad that they feel like they are moving through life as if underwater.
McCall presents with her customary relatability and empathy, sprinkling instances of her own experience throughout the programme but never allowing them to overpower it.
While focusing on the British experience, much of what is featured echoes the concerns expressed by Irish women. The programme tackles important issues such as the over-prescription of anti-depressants to menopausal women (when lack of oestrogen is the problem) and the reluctance to prescribe HRT.
It also goes some way to addressing the shortcomings of the 2002 Women’s Health Initiative Study, which linked HRT to increased breast cancer risk, following which a million women immediately binned their prescriptions (more than 50% came off in the subsequent year).
Stark also is the lack of awareness and education around menopause, with many women not knowing that their symptoms — especially those around mental health — were a direct result of their hormones dropping off a cliff. Although there is good news on that front, with McCall pointing to the fact that the menopause is now being included on the school curriculum in Britain (a lesson for Ireland there).
The programme features plenty of data and research and is jam-packed with fascinating contributors, including Dr Nighat Arif who is trying to raise awareness of menopausal health in her Pakistani community — she talks about how, in her native Urdu, there is no direct translation for the word ‘menopause’.
It also covers issues such as premature menopause, the limited effect of supplements, menopause and the workplace (including the shocking statistic that nine out of ten women felt menopause had a negative impact on their working life).
There are moments of humour too, with McCall displaying the LadyCare Plus Magnet for menopause symptoms — “literally a fanny magnet” — which attaches to the pelvic area, resulting in one lady getting stuck to the conveyor belt at the supermarket.
If anything, there is too much information packed in, with the result that some of the real-life stories are skimmed over, losing their power somewhat. An hour just doesn’t seem enough for such an important subject. However, it is encouraging to see open discussion of issues such as vaginal atrophy, which one woman describes as being so agonising that she spent hours sitting on ice.
As McCall points out at the start of the documentary, it is aimed at everyone — you don’t have to be menopausal, you don’t have to be a woman, this is all information that everybody needs to know. And as an informative and insightful overview of the menopausal experience and challenges, it succeeds. As one woman puts it: “You need to talk about it so you don’t feel so alone”.
Long may the conversation continue.