Shirley Weir started to notice the symptoms of menopause in her early 40s.
“I was waking up every morning at 3 a.m. [and] I had brain fog that was debilitating,” she said during a webcast on World Menopause Day (October 18) hosted by The Globe Women’s Collective. “It was impacting my ability to run a business, look after young children and look after my aging mother.”
But when she approached her doctor and tried to do research online, she found the information she was getting was confusing and conflicting. “There was no community, no place where I could go and say, ‘This is trustworthy, this is verified,’” said Ms. Weir, who reached menopause by age 49.
So, she decided to create that space herself – an online and in-person educational community called Menopause Chicks. Her story is emblematic of how many Canadian women (and people of other genders who menstruate) are having to take their menopause journeys into their own hands because of stigma, lack of information and lack of critical supports around menopause.
According to an October 2022 report by the Menopause Foundation of Canada, women experience more than 30 symptoms of menopause including hot flashes, night sweat, insomnia, weight gain and mood changes like depressive symptoms and anxiety.
“I was one of those women who didn’t have the information. And according to our own research, many women are unprepared for menopause,” said Janet Ko, president and co-founder of the Menopause Foundation of Canada. Ms. Ko and her colleagues launched the national non-profit advocacy organization in 2022 to help combat the long-held taboos and stigmas surrounding menopause and menopause care.
A blow to women’s earning power
When it comes to the workplace, menopause and its effects may appear invisible, but its impacts are felt both by companies and the women who work for them.
“There are over five million working women in Canada over the age of 40,” said Dr. Shawna O’Hearn, co-founder and director of the Menopause Society of Nova Scotia. “That’s a huge number of women [who] aren’t always living their full potential in the workplace.”
A 2023 report by the Menopause Foundation of Canada highlighted, for the very first time, the huge economic impact that unmanaged symptoms of menopause have on the Canadian economy. The report found that menopause costs employers $237-million annually in lost productivity, and costs women a staggering $3.3-billion in lost income due to a reduction in hours and/or pay or having to leave the work force altogether.
Millions of women in the prime earning years of their lives may not understand the hormonal changes their bodies are going through, Ms. Ko explained, and are not able to determine or access the care and support that they need. “As a result, many of them are stepping back [at work], going part time, not taking that promotion, and that’s having a $3.3-billion impact on their bottom lines,” she said.
Taking control of your menopause journey
According to Dr. Shafeena Premji, board member at the Canadian Menopause Society, one of the first steps any woman can take toward preparing for menopause is figuring out how to recognize what the symptoms look like.
“[It’s] going in to your family doctor and booking a physical, where you’re asking; ‘What can I do today, to help prepare me better as I transition? What should I be looking for in terms of changes in my menstruation? Should I be screened for diabetes at this age? What about my blood pressure? What about my weight? What about some of my lifestyle choices like my smoking and alcohol consumption?’” she said. (Research suggests smoking may increase the risk of early menopause and alcohol can make some menopause symptoms worse.)
Dr. Premji suggests a helpful resource called MQ6, a six-question tool that anyone can download for free that can help them prepare to speak with their family doctor about their experiences.
“Questions in the MQ6 [focus on] periods, if they’re experiencing hot flashes or night sweats, if they’re having any vaginal symptoms, sexual dysfunction, urinary symptoms, changes in their sleep and any mood changes,” said Dr. Premji. These questions can be a great help in deciding what to ask family doctors during an appointment.
“If, at that point, the family doctor is unsure what to do, then that patient can then ask their physician to refer them to a menopause practitioner in their area.”
Dr. O’Hearn pointed out that discussions about menopause, its impacts and the need for better menopause supports shouldn’t be left solely to women who are in middle age – the menopause conversation needs to include everyone across ages and across genders.
“I think one of the next steps will be thinking about how we reframe some of this so that our male colleagues, friends and family also feel included in the conversation,” she said.
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