"Give Me My Hormones!"
Inside the controversial demand
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In 2002, San Diego was at the forefront of a groundbreaking study on hormone replacement that stunned the medical community, and prompted a generation of women to flush their hormones down the drain. A decade later, the controversy looms—but American women still want their hormones.
For Natalie Meyerson, menopause hardly passed as fast as a hot flash. After 30 years, it still hasn’t passed. The 77-year-old Oceanside resident wakes up in the middle of the night drenched, jostles on her fan, and falls back into the sheets weary and wide awake. Hot flashes used to come in the light of day too—sometimes hourly—while she played with her grandchildren or took strolls with her husband, Max.
This wasn’t always the case. In 1996, the determined Meyerson went to La Jolla to enroll in the Women’s Health Initiative, a landmark study of 160,000 women sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Meyerson was happy to lend her body to science, fingers crossed that she’d get the real McCoy—a medication called Prempro with synthetic versions of the female sex hormones estrogen and progestin.
The effects were euphoric. “I got up every morning with vim and vigor,” Meyerson recounts. “My body reacted like a 21-year-old woman’s again. That was an awesome feeling after all these years of night sweats and hot flashes.”
Other women found their sex drives returned, arid vaginas flowered, moods improved, and at long last they could sleep through the night. It was an era when drug makers marketed hormones like candy and menopause as a medical problem, rather than a natural part of aging. Robert Wilson, a prominent gynecologist with ties to the pharmaceutical industry, jump-started the hormone craze in the ’60s with his blockbuster book Feminine Forever. Doctors even prescribed estrogen and progestin to women well past menopause, thinking it would actually prevent disease.
Then came the reports of cancer.
In July 2002, the Women’s Health Initiative brought rigorous science to the world of sex hormones—and the results weren’t exactly “feminine forever.” Some participants taking Prempro succumbed to invasive breast cancer, heart attacks, blood clots, and stroke. Women over 65 experienced more dementia. To Meyerson’s distress, the NIH abruptly halted the Prempro arm of its study. Mystified doctors and whipsawed women who’d previously been sold hormones as a virtual panacea slammed on the brakes.
“I read so much in all the newspapers about the WHI [study] and the women who got breast cancer, the women who got heart attacks,” Meyerson recalls. “I experienced none of that. My body did well with the Prempro.”
The startling news quickly became the hot topic on morning talk shows and evening newscasts. The largest clinical trial on hormone replacement therapy ever conducted was causing cancer. Cancer.
Meyerson received a letter from the NIH telling her to turn in any unused medication. Her trusted family doctor wouldn’t write her a prescription either. In fact, physicians around the country got gun-shy about prescribing hormones to menopausal women, no matter their age or family history. Prescriptions plunged more than 50 percent over the next 10 years. In all, 16,608 WHI participants were plucked off the estrogen and progestin therapy. San Diego was the third largest clinical center in the nationwide study, with clinics in La Jolla and Chula Vista. In San Diego, 774 women participating in the hormone study got the jarring news it was over.