Helen Martin: HRT questions need answered

YET another study, this time from Denmark, has been published rejecting claims of a link between hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and breast cancer. The Danish findings add that it can protect against heart disease, without increasing the risk of cancer.

There’s a search on for a definitive answer, especially as British doctors are calling for restrictions on HRT to be lifted so that more women can receive the treatment to protect them from osteoporosis and relieve hot flushes and other undesirable symptoms of the menopause.

I’m not a doctor, but I am one of those women whose personal stories suggest a very strong link between the two. And if there is one thing I’m positive about, it is that sweeping generalisations about how safe or unsafe HRT is don’t help, given that individual natural hormone levels vary so much.

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I remain convinced that it had a great deal to do with my breast cancer – and I have yet to meet a doctor who can put hand on heart and tell me he thinks I’m wrong.

Experts in favour say previous fears were based on hormone replacement being given to women way past the menopause, for whom it was never intended.

My story began much earlier at 29. I was told by a gynaecologist that I must never use the pill as contraception because I naturally produced such high levels of oestrogen that the “normal” level contained in the pill would be too little and cause a premature menopause.

Flash forward to age 46 and I was experiencing cold shivers and weight gain which the GP thought might be thyroid-related, but tests showed that wasn’t the case. On the assumption that there had to be a systemic cause, and that I was certainly in the age group to be experiencing some menopausal symptoms, we decided on HRT, which I took for about two years.

I stopped simply because I forgot to renew the prescription. The symptoms had disappeared so there seemed no reason to continue. Besides, there was still no other evidence of menopause.

About a year later my first routine mammogram led to a diagnosis of breast cancer requiring a mastectomy. After five years on the well-known Tamoxifen drug, given to women following surgery, it was time to “graduate” to the next drug for post-menopausal women. There was only one problem. I wasn’t post-menopausal. At 55, I was told my oestrogen levels were those of a 35-year-old. That phrase may sound flattering to the uninitiated, but it is not good news.

I’d had high levels to begin with, boosted them even further with HRT then, lo and behold, I developed a type of breast cancer which is known as an “oestrogen feeder”. I was a banquet which it couldn’t refuse. It’s not proof positive, but it is rather compelling.

Nowadays, breast cancer treatment is individually tailored for each woman. We don’t, even with the same type of cancer, all respond in the same way. Surely, with all the possible variations of hormone levels, the same could be true of HRT?

For some it will be the closest thing to an elixir of life, maintaining their bone integrity, avoiding hot flushes and mood swings, many women claiming it makes them look and feel younger. For others it could have darker side-effects.

The population is getting older, more women are working, putting off pregnancy and working longer before retirement. Fifty is the new 40 and HRT’s promises make it very tempting. We cannot afford to get this wrong.

Hormones are extremely powerful natural substances. How can we talk about “replacing” them when we don’t know at what level they naturally sat to begin with in each woman, or by how much – if at all – that level has fallen?

My generation was the trial group for contraception in our youth. Now they are playing stop-go with us over HRT. Enough hormones already. Less generalising, rough guessing and experimentation please and more 
hormone testing before we are given any more pills to pop.

No Savile shock

IT is no exaggeration to say that in the 1970s and 80s, there was no secret about Jimmy Savile’s appetite for young girls and boys. The only “revelations” of the last week concerned his apparent abusive behaviour to the young hospital patients who were the “beneficiaries” of his voluntary and charity work, and who most of us probably thought were safe.

Everyone knew then, and despite that knowledge, he was knighted. They were different times in which lecherous, abusive men were tolerated, especially if they were famous and powerful, and girls who fell prey to them were blamed. Stoke Mandeville nurses knew, BBC employees knew, journalists knew. I’d be surprised if the police didn’t know. I honestly can’t see what good an inquiry is going to do now.

The old pervert is dead and his victims can witness his posthumous disgrace. Thank God it couldn’t happen now, and that is what really matters.