When Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum took her dog, Willy, for a walk in Central Park last week, she was stopped by several women eager to discuss a very personal matter with a stranger -- menopause.
"Nobody knows what to do," says Gotbaum. The news that the government had stopped a study on hormone-replacement therapy (HRT), warning that some drugs increased the risk of cancer and strokes, has sent New York's high-powered women of a certain age into emotional free-fall. "I've been trying to reach my doctor for two days," says Gotbaum, who went cold turkey last week, stopping the hormone pill she's been on for six years. "Maybe the hot flashes will start again. Who knows?"
Get out the chocolate and the Prozac: All over the city, thousands of women are debating whether to give up their meds and return to sleepless nights, low libido, and sweaty Chanel suits. Gail Sheehy, author of the best-seller on menopause The Silent Passage, says, "Watch out for the workplace. Wherever there are women over 40, it's going to be hell." Sheehy, who uses a low-dose estrogen patch, is planning to stop but can't face the side effects right now. "I'll take a hormone holiday," she says. "But I have to wait until I finish my new book."
Anxiety about the new side effects may also turn out to be a side effect in itself. Or as one high-level publishing veteran mutters, "We've all been worrying about the next terrorist attack, but this is much more frightening." She had just received a mass e-mail sent by a friend, a well-known TV correspondent, with the plaintive query: "Now what, ladies?"
Patricia Allen, a gynecologist and director of the New York Menopause Center, says that for years she has cautioned her patients to use hormones for short-term relief, but that long-term use (as the study indicated) is dangerous; the women often don't want to hear it. "They want to be young forever," says Allen. "It's all about how you look. I ask patients, 'If you get breast cancer or a blood clot from HRT, was better skin worth it?' "
The answer, for some women, is a resounding yes. Gossip columnist Liz Smith says, "Something is going to kill us all eventually. I'd rather have quality of life with hormones." Literary agent Lucianne Goldberg nods: "I stopped taking hormones for three months once, and half my hair fell out. I've been gargling the drugs ever since." Erica (Fear of Flying) Jong offers the comforting thought that life is worth living without the pills, which she gave up several years ago. "I didn't have hot flashes or brain unraveling," she says, "and I didn't need hormones to have a sex life." But playwright Jeanie Linders, author of Menopause: The Musical, sees estrogen as so addictive that many women won't kick the habit. "This is a time of life that makes women so insane that they'll hold onto anything that makes them feel better," she says.
A more poignant reaction comes from Helen Gurley Brown, the ultimate Cosmo girl, who recalls publishing in 1965 one of the first stories hyping the merits of estrogen and birth-control pills. "I mainlined Premarin for years," she said. "I wanted to stay sexy and juicy and young." Diagnosed four years ago with breast cancer, Brown, now 80, is angry that the long-term side effects of HRT are only now being studied. "If not for all those hormones," she says, "maybe this wouldn't have happened to me."