LIKE MOST people, I was shocked by the results of a report published last week into the effects of taking Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT). The huge study of over one million women aged between 50 and 65 found that those who took the most common form of HRT, a combined dose of oestrogen and progesterone, were twice as likely to get breast cancer.
Something like one third of women between 50 and 64 take HRT. But it isn't possible to understand why HRT is so widely prescribed without looking at society's attitudes to women and the way capitalist society subordinates everything to profit.
After all, the menopause is not something out of the ordinary. Every woman will go through it, and most will live around one third of their lives after it. So why is it that safe, effective remedies to alleviate its symptoms-such as night sweats, hot flushes, insomnia, vaginal dryness causing painful sex-have still not been found?
These complaints are often dismissed by the medical profession as just 'women's problems'. We were once told to grin and bear it. Now we are expected to swallow the magical HRT pill. This is partly down to the relentless way drug companies like Wyeth and Novartis have pushed HRT.
One GP told me that the drug was so heavily pushed that there was talk a few years ago of using the number of HRT prescriptions as a GP performance indicator. As an article in the Lancet put it, 'The health benefits of HRT were highlighted, but the increased risks of breast and endometrial cancer, although known, were downplayed. The great influence of the drug industry was used to promote HRT to physicians (including menopausal clinics) and directly to patients (women's magazines, leaflets and websites).'
Alternatives to HRT have not been promoted with the same vigour. There's not much profit in helping women change their diets, take up exercise or give up smoking, for example. There is also the impact of the insidious and sexist way society judges and evaluates women.
The mainstream message foisted on women is that our value lies in being attractive and in our ability to produce healthy, happy children. Once we reach middle age we can no longer reproduce, and the pressure is on to keep ourselves 'young'. We're not supposed to 'let ourselves go' or, heaven forbid, grow older.
And of course the profit merchants jump on any insecurity if they can see a quick buck. So there are 101 varieties of creams to iron out wrinkles, and then there's HRT.
The drug companies and some in the elite of the medical profession have sold the drug not as a short term help through physical changes in women's bodies, but as a whole lifestyle transformation. No drug can get the boss off your back, shorten your hours, get you more money or make a boring partner suddenly interesting.
Another recent study by the Women's Health Initiative in Houston involving 16,000 women found that when half were given HRT and half a placebo, neither group saw any lifestyle or emotional differences. We should not overplay the risks. Only a tiny minority on HRT will get breast cancer, and many within the age group in the million-woman study would have got breast cancer whether or not they took HRT.
And for some women the benefits of HRT make the risks seem worth it. But to make an informed decision we need a genuine assessment of risk that isn't skewed by the demands of the drug companies, and a transformation in the way society views women's lives.