Published: 06:00, 06 June 2021
A mum who suffered debilitating back pain and panic attacks unknowingly caused by the menopause is empowering thousands of women to open up about the taboo subject.
A year ago Cathy Proctor, from Margate, couldn’t even lift her leg to get on the pavement when she crossed the road.
She could barely move, couldn’t sleep due to the pain, and admits her quality of life had taken such a nosedive it was affecting her family.
Despite extensive research suggesting it could be a symptom of menopause, this was dismissed by a physio and she was sent away by her GP with the advice to “drink more soya”.
Desperately searching for answers, Ms Proctor eventually used her savings to go to a private clinic where her suspicions were confirmed.
The 53-year-old now admits she “stumbled” into the menopause armed with incorrect information and myths.
“How the hell did I get to the age of 52 and know so little about something that is so fundamental and important to every single woman in the world who will at some stage go through this?” she said.
“They might be affected badly, or they might not, but it’s something that happens to half of the population and yet we don’t know enough about it.
“Anything I thought I did know was wrong.
“I remember last year sitting on the beach chatting and I mouthed the word ‘menopause’ like it was a secret, or we should be really ashamed.
“Yet it affects every woman at some stage in their life. It also affects their partner and their kids because if you’re not feeling great, the dynamics of your family change, and working can also become difficult.”
The mum-of-three, who sadly lost one of her daughters to a heart abnormality when she was very young, has now set up an Instagram page dedicated to helping women going through the menopause and it has already reached more than 2,200 followers.
It comes during a wave of awareness on the topic, which was sparked by a Channel 4 documentary Davina McCall: Sex, Myths and Menopause, in which the TV presenter speaks frankly about her own experience.
It prompted a deluge of praise and confessions from women about how much they too have suffered in silence.
Ms Proctor says finally people are opening up and her Instagram page is full of women sharing their stories.
Many are younger than you would think, she says. Some are perimenopausal - which comes before menopause and can be when women are in their 30s or early 40s - and one extreme case is a girl of just 14 going through it.
“People think it’s plump, older women with grey hair sat there knitting and having hot flushes - that’s not the case,” she said.
“When I started researching I was in shock about how little I knew and this is all about trying to peel it back.
“I was in so much pain I could hardly move. I was able to do loads of research and started to slowly unpick this dark secret that was out there.
“At times I felt so desperate. I was frustrated, cross - how had I missed all of this?
“Then it became more apparent as I was speaking to my friends and family that, hang on, this isn’t just me, I haven’t just missed this, we’re all in the dark here.”
While well-known symptoms of menopause are hot flushes, night sweats and irregular or no periods, more serious ones such as mental health problems, suicidal thoughts, severe anxiety and chronic joint pain are less recognised.
Ms Proctor says she suffered debilitating anxiety and panic attacks when she turned 40, but had no idea why.
It was so bad she could barely leave the house at times. She also had heart palpitations and dizziness, but with tests coming back inconclusive, she was left stumped.
'How the hell did I get to the age of 52 and know so little about something that is so fundamental and important to every single woman in the world?...'
“You find with a lot of women my age that when you look back you had symptoms but because you didn’t know they were symptoms you put them down as isolated incidents and you got on with it,” she said.
“Last year, my back hit badly during Covid.
“I was feeling really desperate and had hardly any movement. I couldn’t bend, or turn over in bed, I was just crying, the pain was really bad.
“When lockdown eased I went to the physio and by this time I’m thinking this is to do with my hormones.
“I floated the idea to him. He was a lovely guy, but very dismissive and said he’d never heard of that. So I went away feeling a bit embarrassed that I’d said it.
“I was getting nowhere with my GP, and saw their menopause specialist and we ended the conversation with her telling me to go and drink lots of soya.
“When I wrote to a private clinic saying my hunch was this joint pain was to do with my hormones they got back to me and said I was absolutely right, that it is a common symptom.
“And then she asked if I had any others and I said ‘no, just back pain but there was this and that 10 years ago’ and suddenly it all fell into place.”
The former school worker is now pushing for better education and improved training for GPs - something that is happening through the Make Menopause Matter movement, by campaigner Diane Danzebrink, who is demanding mandatory training. A petition has reached more than 145,000 signatures.
Ms Proctor said: “It’s about knowledge; we don’t have it on our radar and GPs aren’t aware as they are not well trained in the menopause. It’s a complete tragedy that none of us really know and anything we do know or thought we did know, particularly about HRT (hormone replacement therapy), was wrong.
“We can’t make informed choices on how we protect our future health if we don’t know the facts.”
Ms Proctor had always previously been against the idea of having HRT, but eight months ago started taking it and says it has had a hugely positive impact.
In 2003 a report was published by the Women’s Health Initiative which suggested women on HRT had an increased risk of breast cancer. It was later found that the findings were over-estimated, but the health scare led to high numbers of women coming off it.
Ms Proctor, who volunteers at the Menopause Charity, says starting the menopause should be a time to embrace life as a new start.
“To do that we need to feel well,” she said.
“To feel well you might need HRT but you need to know the facts to make that choice.
“You shouldn’t have to wait until your symptoms are so debilitating or your periods have stopped that you start it.
“It’s one massive vicious circle of us not being educated to be able to make informed choices about our own health.”