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by Julia Sneden

One of my friends who quit her Hormone Replacement Therapy because of its possible links to cancer decided to go back onto her medication a couple of months ago. Her reason? In addition to feeling old and creaky, she was having hot flashes, six or seven a day and two or three a night.

Anyone who has ever experienced a lively hot flash may understand her willingness to play the lottery with her mortality. If you could be sure that the flashes would go away in a few months or even in a year, it might be easier to stand firm and get through them without HRT. But when I complained to my doctor about still having hot flashes 3 years after menopause, he just smiled and said: "I guess you're one of the lucky ones who continue to have them for a long time. Some women have them for the rest of their lives."

Some comfort, that, and I was annoyed enough to snap that I'd like to see him try to deal with them. (Actually, now that more and more women are going into medicine, perhaps someday there will be a researcher who really understands the problem, and by virtue of her femaleness is highly motivated to figure out a remedy safer than HRT).

But I can't be too hard on my doctor. Even though the link between HRT and cancer was then undocumented, he urged me to resist taking hormones because there had been a rise in the incidence of breast cancer all across the nation, and he suspected there might be a connection to HRT.

Not taking the hormones suited me fine, since I'm one of those cautious women who resists taking drugs, and am inclined to let nature have her way unless I'm at death's door. This doesn't mean I have learned to enjoy the hot flashes.

Eleven years after menopause, I still have occasional flashes. They're no fun. They're called "flashes" for a good reason, because they strike as fast as lightning, a sudden feeling of intense heat all over my body. Sweat begins to pour, especially on my face which turns, I have been told, beet red. I can recall teaching school on a cold winter's day, with the sweat running along my hairline and wetting my bangs so thoroughly that I looked as if I might have come straight from the swimming pool.

And then there's the horrid sensation of waking from a sound sleep, drenched in sweat, even in the dead of winter with your bedroom window wide open. You toss off the covers, waiting for the flash to subside so that you can go back to sleep, which you finally do, only to wake up in a few minutes because you're now sensibly cold. Or, and this is worse, you get up, wash off the sweat, change to a clean nightgown, and climb back to bed only to wake up an hour later in the same fix.

Fortunately, the frequency of my hot flashes has diminished considerably, and my coping methods have grown. Here are a couple of things that have helped me. If any readers have found other effective strategies, I'd be happy to hear about them.

  • Buy yourself a couple of battery-powered personal fans. Brookstone makes a great one that stands about 6" tall and is safe to use around kids and pets, as the soft plastic blades can be easily stopped by your hand. (But be careful not to get it near hair, which can become wound on the shaft). I carry my little fan with me all over the house. I put it on my ironing board, on a shelf above the sink, on the bathroom counter, etc. It's well worth the investment and the jokes it engenders.

  • Try a diet rich in soy products. Recent studies say there's doubt that soy is effective in treating hot flashes, but I perceive a difference in the frequency and strength of mine when I eat lots of soy. I buy frozen edamame (soy beans in the pod), and shell and pop them like peanuts. They're great fiber, and a tasty treat, too.

  • I haven't yet found a good answer to sleep problems. When I wake up hot, my mind starts spinning with all the worries of life, and then I really am awake. But if I get up and do something physical like unloading the dishwasher or even doing some simple stretching, it seems to help in getting back to sleep. Reading or watching television or working at my computer, however, are guaranteed to keep my brain wide awake.

  • On the Internet and Web, you can find a number of herbal remedies. Just go to a search engine and type in "hot flashes." I tend to be leery of these because I'm an asthmatic who is allergic to odd things as well. I am very careful about trying new things or mixing herbals with other medications, but if you're brave enough, you just might find something that would help.

  • Dress in layers, so that you can peel off something. Don't wear polyester, which traps the heat and doesn't absorb the sweat. Cotton is your best friend.

  • Oddly enough, I find that some of the old Lamaze breathing and relaxing techniques work for me now as well as when I was in labor. They've gotten me through all sorts of minor medical and dental procedures, and I believe they shorten the duration of hot flashes as well. This may be a purely psychological effect, but I say if it helps, do it.

  • And a splash of cold water doesn't hurt, either.

*Editor's Note: When Julia related her tips about dealing with the effects of hot flashes some time ago, we asked if she'd put them together for our readers. A number of women who, like this editor, took HRT for more than a decade are now coping with hot flashes well into our sixties and seventies.

If you'd like to share your tips for dealing with menopausal symptoms, please write to swwpub.


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