A ground-breaking website today lifts the lid on the menopause - and could save women from suffering alone, misunderstood by unsympathetic partners and snickering workmates.
The new section of award-winning www.healthtalkonline.org features 46 women from all walks of life - who reveal "everything you wanted to know but were afraid to ask" in frank audio and video interviews.
The project, run by University of Oxford researchers, showed that while some women sailed through the menopause, others suffered severe symptoms. The interviews include experiences about the onset of the menopause, coping day to day with symptoms, relationships, sex and contraception, HRT and work.
Like all Healthtalkonline sections, the Menopause site is designed to help others in the same situation, and healthcare professionals - but this one could go much further, as an invaluable source of information for partners, families and even employers.
"All women - and their partners - should look at www.healthtalkonline.org/Later_life/menopause said Dr Jenny Hislop, lead researcher and a member of the Health Experiences Research Group at the University of Oxford.
"It will give men a thorough understanding of what their partner is going through by reading about real women's experience of the menopause. And the website should also be required viewing for anyone whose life is affected by a woman going through the menopause whether it's their mum, their employee, their boss or their patient."
Dr Hislop paid tribute to the women's courage in talking about a sensitive subject online: "To many, the menopause is still taboo, and they have helped bring it out into the open."
A key aspect is the impact of the menopause on relationships at home and work. While some women found their partners supportive, many acknowledged that mood swings and other symptoms could put a strain on relationships.
One interviewee, Cheryl says frankly: 'I was not able to cope and I would fly off the handle at the slightest thing. And I'd be more critical, my poor husband suffered I think. I became quite nit picking about things and I think he found that difficult."
Maria, 42, a supermarket assistant, experienced "unbelievable" hot flushes, leaving her dizzy, faint and miserable, and so tried to engage her workmates: "I do try to explain to these guys but they don't want to know. They're not interested. It's just a joke; you get your blond jokes, you get your menopause jokes."
But another interviewee, Rhonda, insists that "even when you get quite moody", talking is the way forward.
And the more detail and explanation, the better, she says: "Rather than just saying, 'Oh, I'm having a hot flush, I'm taking my jacket off' it's far better if a woman understands, and, at the right time, explains the physiological changes that are taking place." The partner, she says, needs to recognize "that if you have got an arm round them or they're feeling hot, they're not shrugging you off because they don't want you near them, they... just need that space."
Worst of all, is the thoughtless comment, according to Liz who had her menopause at 36. She said: "Don't tell us 'it's your hormones, love...'".
The website highlights the way the current confusion over the safety of HRT has made it difficult for women to know how best to treat disabling symptoms such as hot flushes.
"Some women explain how HRT has been a force for good in their lives. Others have followed their GP's advice and stopped taking it despite serious menopausal problems. A third section has felt they had to take HRT to deal with their menopausal symptoms while feeling that they were playing Russian roulette with their long-term health," said Dr Hislop.
"Amid all this uncertainty, there's worrying evidence that too many women feel they're not getting the support they need from their healthcare practitioner," she says.
DIPEx has created two websites - www.healthtalkonline.org and www.youthhealthtalk.org - of people's experiences of more than 50 different illnesses and health conditions. The websites are aimed at patients, their carers, family and friends, doctors, nurses and other health professionals, and are based on in-depth qualitative research carried out by the Health Experiences Research Group at the University of Oxford.
Users of the websites will find accounts - presented through video, audio and written material - of issues such as reaction to diagnosis, consultation with their doctor, effect on work, social life and relationships, decisions on treatment options and side-effects.
To date, www.healthtalkonline.org has covered illnesses including cancer, heart disease, neurological conditions (Parkinson's, epilepsy and autism) chronic health issues (HIV, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis) and mental health. We also provide experiences of women's health, dying and bereavement, and publish young people's experiences (including epilepsy, sexual health, teenage cancer) on our dedicated youth website -www.youthhealthtalk.org.
Supporters include Jon Snow, Dawn French, John Humphrys, Ian McEwan, Dr Jonathan Miller, Jenni Murray, Michael Palin, Philip Pullman, Libby Purves, Thom Yorke and many others. The actor, Hugh Grant has just agreed to be its patron.
DIPEx, a registered charity no. 1087019, is funded by the Department of Health and charitable trusts. Full details are on our websites.