Guest post by Jane Lewis, author of Me & My Menopausal Vagina, ahead of World Menopause Day on 18 October
Tomorrow is World Menopause Day, which this year is focused on the theme of sexual wellbeing. Vaginal atrophy – a thinning, drying and inflammation of the vaginal walls – is one of the lesser known symptoms of the menopause, but can have a massive impact on women’s sexual wellbeing, and even their everyday lives, during midlife.
For the last seven years, Jane Lewis has suffered from vaginal atrophy, and has now written a frank and funny book about her experiences. I asked Jane to blog about the sexism, stigma and dismissal she’s come up against along the way.
My vaginal atrophy symptoms started at about 45 – although, looking back, I think there were probably signs from when I was about 40, it just wasn’t bad enough to affect my day-to-day life. I’m now 52, and have never had the ‘normal’ menopause symptoms, like hot flushes, but I did have very itchy skin, especially on my shins, which is quite common.
Early on, vaginal atrophy affected everything in my life – from wearing knickers or trousers, to sitting down and socialising. Sex became impossible due to the pain, and my mental wellbeing was badly affected. I became suicidal. As my mental and physical health declined, I gave up my job as a florist – because all the standing and driving involved with my work simply became too uncomfortable.
It took a while to get diagnosed – probably about a year – simply because I was considered too young. It also wasn’t considered vaginal atrophy because I was still having periods, and vaginal atrophy generally affects post-menopausal women. My original GP was not overly helpful, but I quite quickly realised what it was after consulting ‘Dr Google’. I am a natural researcher so, once I realised my problem was highly likely to be vaginal atrophy due to reduced oestrogen, I went and found a specialist to help me.
The stigma I’ve encountered from some health professionals – and heard about from many other women – is quite frankly appalling. (Although equally, I’ve heard about some wonderful ones, and my current GP is lovely.) It seems that, for some doctors, women’s sexual health is either not important, and we’re expected to ‘lie back and think of England’, or it’s all in our heads and we must have a mental health condition. That’s not to undermine those with an actual mental health problem – but the agony between my legs was very definitely not in my head. To not be believed by the very medical professionals you reach out to is unforgivable.
I know some women with vaginal atrophy are lucky enough to be treated appropriately by GPs or gynaecologists who are kind, compassionate, and knowledgeable of this problem. However, far too many of us are dismissed or ridiculed, with some GPs even advising ‘have a glass of wine’ in order to have sex. Would a GP’s response be the same if a man got his penis out, his GP could see it was sore, splitting and itchy, and he said that every time he had sex he would get a UTI? I am pretty certain it would not.
I went to a talk on the menopause a couple of years ago and, when I mentioned how uncomfortable I was sitting in the audience, one of the speakers said: “use it or loose it”. I guess that fueled my fire. I thought, if even a gynaecologist is giving this advice to women with my symptoms of vaginal atrophy, then we as women are up a creek without a paddle. I hope my book gives women the courage to speak out, and that medical professionals take note. We are an ageing population and this problem will only get worse; our vaginas and bladders do not cope well without oestrogen.
For women struggling with vaginal atrophy, the most important message I would give you is don’t self-treat. Vaginal atrophy, in its early stages, has very similar symptoms to other skin conditions – one being lichen scleroses, which can in very rare cases turn to vulva cancer. Once you have been checked for this, if your GP offers no help, then read up on the 2015 NICE guidelines and educate yourself. Knowledge is power. That’s why I wrote Me & My Menopausal Vagina, to give women the knowledge and self-conviction to say: “listen to me”.
Buy Jane’s book, Me & My Menopausal Vagina, on Amazon.