Harriet Berkal unveils the secrets of menopause. Berkal began the support group Menopause Matters after experiencing a lack of help when she went through that stage of life. (photo by Manny Berkal-Sarbit)
Medical advocate Harriet Berkal recalls eagerly anticipating going through menopause, imagining it to be a fabulous life stage without having a period every 28 days or so.
“Now, if I could go back and have my periods and not go through this other nonsense, I would say, give me my periods back,” Berkal told the Independent.
Berkal works as an executive financial consultant for Sarbit Advisory Services in Winnipeg and has been struggling with menopause-related issues for the past seven years. She has leaned from experience that there is next to no help out there for dealing with the effects of menopause, and this has led her to take matters into her own hands and create a support group.
“One problem with this issue of menopause is, if you complain to a physician about something like weight gain, a symptom of menopause, they bundle everything you say after that behind that carriage,” said Berkal. “So, my GP missed the fact that I had a thyroid condition, because it was thrown into menopause – the same way that people get thrown into the irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or the fibromyalgia hole … where anything you complain about is automatically assumed to be related to that, when it might not actually be.”
Menopause symptoms for many women include hot flashes, night sweats, migraine headaches, bladder infections, gastroesophageal reflux disease, lost libido, and painful intercourse. There are also some very rare reactions, such as feeling as though you have bugs crawling all over you, and emotional depression or anxiety, which are also related to hormonal fluctuations.
While typically menopause begins in one’s 50s, it can start in one’s 40s, where the cycles become more erratic, and, in some cases, even earlier, from induced conditions via cancer treatments, for example.
As Berkal searched for solutions, she decided to share the information she gathered with other women undergoing menopause. She approached Winnipeg’s Jewish Child and Family Services (JCFS) about starting up a learning and support group.
The idea was welcomed and the group was called Menopause Matters. Some 20 women meet once a week for five weeks to learn about different approaches to dealing with menopause symptoms and management.
“Most of the primary group are those in the throes of menopause and who aren’t functioning well,” said Berkal. “We had about 18 at last week’s meeting. It was an emotional meeting. There were some people who were extremely – not just frustrated with the system, but at the end of their rope. They don’t know who to turn to, what to do. We provide them, each week, with a different speaker and go through the whole gamut of solutions from traditional to non-traditional.”
Some education is provided by the clinic Vitality Integrated Medicine, which is run by a former pharmacist. Participants are informed about drug interactions, different kinds of tests to help determine actual lacks in their systems, and three different kinds of estrogen. According to Berkal, what often happens is that menopause-affected women consult their doctors and are told they need estrogen, and then they just take whichever one is prescribed.
Recently, Menopause Matters participants had a guest speaker who is an acupuncturist discussing stress control and how it affects hormones, and various acupuncture relaxation techniques that could help. “She brought needles and tried them out on some people,” said Berkal. “People were appreciative of that approach.”
Another scheduled guest speaker at the time of Berkal’s interview with the Independent was gynecologist Dr. Maggie Morris. She was to speak “about mainstream methods for dealing with things like Premarin estrogen application.”
Berkal’s personal experience with conventional medicine in general is that its practitioners are uncooperative from the moment she mentions that other approaches will be presented.
“The pharmacies have these ready-made solutions,” she said. “They aren’t one-size-fits-all solutions in my mind. We’re trying to provide people with a range of different solutions and methods to cope with this. One solution doesn’t do everything. You don’t want to mask symptoms. You want to get to the root. Everyone’s jockeying for position here and everyone has different approaches, so you should try figuring out what system fits you the best.”
Another speaker booked to address the support group is to talk about the importance of exercise, while another will highlight a treatment called Mona Lisa Touch, which involves the use of a laser inserted into the vagina to stimulate vaginal collagen production.
“It rejuvenates the tissue in the vagina without hormones, so you can get increased libido and increased moisture,” explained Berkal. “It helps create a better balance of health in the vagina.
“Many women get bladder infections, because the bladder and the vagina are closely linked. And, if you don’t have the right environment in the vagina, which is decreased because of menopause, you can end up with UTIs [urinary tract infections] … which I had probably 10 of last year before I started treatment.”
When Berkal underwent menopause, she said, “It was a pretty extreme and exacerbated reaction. Mood swings are a very big issue. Last week, there were several women in the group who said, ‘Does anyone feel like they’re going crazy?’ Almost everyone raised their hand.
“Hormones are so powerful. When they are working great, that’s great. When they are depleted, you are left with a shell of a body, susceptible to bone loss, memory fog, you think you’re getting the early stages of Alzheimer’s … but really, you’re not.”
Berkal believes that integrated medicine is the right direction and, in fact, integrated clinics are popping up in many places.
“But, the fact that I couldn’t find a menopause support group was mind-boggling,” said Berkal. “I approached the Mature Women’s Clinic at the Victoria Hospital and asked if they would start a support group. They said ‘no.’
“Why would they not want to help women in need? Yet, when the pharmaceutical companies sponsor a forum for one of their gynecologists to speak, they get thousands of women to come down who are in dire need of help … but they are only giving one approach.”
Shelley Levit, a social worker at JCFS, was very receptive to the integrated approach Berkal described, and the concept of letting women choose for themselves what they want to pursue.
Berkal hosted a Menopause Matters free, five-week support group from Sept. 15 to Oct. 13, via JCFS.
“We call it ‘the Sisterhood of Sharing,’” said Berkal. “Sharing is deeply required in order to feel camaraderie and kinship with these other women who really have no one else to talk to. It wasn’t intended to be targeted at Jewish women specifically. It’s like cancer – not specific to any ethnicity.”
Berkal wants to see if the group would be receptive to having partners and spouses join, so they can be present and hear from other women.
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.