Saturday, 28 January 2006

You can't replace old friends

Two years ago today, Simone – a very good friend of mine – died, of a pulmonary embolism caused by the Tamoxifen she was taking after having breast cancer, which had itself been caused most probably by years and years of unsupervised HRT.

The other day, when I went to the Vive la France! exhibition, it wasn’t just to collect brochures for my work, it was also to exorcise it: that’s where I saw Simone for the last time – 12 days before her death.

We’d known each other for exactly 30 years: we’d met in 1974, in Stratford-upon-Avon, where we both lived. She worked as a seamstress in the RSC costume department and was married to one of the most famous theatre designers of the time (he’d met her in France 18 years earlier and brought her back to England). She was separated from him, but it didn’t stop her colleagues from giving her a hard time. She felt isolated and we became friends immediately (although she was quite a lot older than me). We saw each other all the time over the next few months.

I returned to France at the end of the year, but kept in touch with Simone regularly. I stayed with her several times during the holidays. She stayed with me in Paris. Then, in the mid-’80s, she went a bit mad – her behaviour became very erratic. They put it down to the menopause and she was given HRT and everything went back to normal.

We lost touch in the ’90s, when I fell ill and stopped going to Stratford so often, but we still corresponded and talked on the phone from time to time.

In her 2003 Christmas card she told me she’d had breast cancer but she was ok. A couple of weeks later she announced she would be coming down to London to attend the Vive la France! exhibition and could she see me there, since the hall was very close to my house? As it happened, I was, like this year, updating a guide and would be going to the exhibition myself, so we arranged to meet. She sounded full of beans and I was very excited at the prospect of seeing her again after such a long time.

She was very late on the day and I nearly gave up, but just as I was preparing to move away from our meeting point, she appeared and we fell into each other’s arms. She’d been waiting in the wrong place, after going around the exhibition and seemingly buying every French product on offer. I remarked on the heavy bags she was carrying and how she should be careful not to overdo it. We had a very good time over a drink at the buvette, but after an hour I had to take my leave: the exhibition was closing soon and I still hadn’t got the brochures I needed. I took a few pictures and we parted, promising to keep in touch and see each other more often.

Two weeks later, I received a phone call from her son. The funeral had already taken place.

I want to slap her GP for repeating her prescription for HRT without giving her a thorough examination at regular intervals and for not warning her of the dangers of taking hormones for 20 years. As for Tamoxifen, the risk of developing blood clots is very small and it must have been balanced against the risk of a recurrence of the cancer. But by then it was already too late.


  1. I'm a huge fan of modern medicine, but I do find terrifying the way the treatment for one disease leads to another disease or state of unwellness and different treatment, and so on and so on until you can't tell whether you are sick from the illnesses or from the drugs interacting. I know several people in my mother's generation (mid-70s) whose lives are made wretched by a bunch of specialists all seemingly trying to undo the effects of each other's work, and a GP stuck hopelessly in the middle of it, unable to co-ordinate. All that leads to is miserable days that no one helps them with.

    Your friend looks very jolly. It sounds as if she was happy until the end. Maybe she was spared more suffering waiting for her in the future.

  2. I'm slapping all right. You've given her a dignified memorial, I'd want that from a friend.

  3. I'm so sorry, J. That's tragic. I've always been disturbed by the tendency in modern medicine to mess with the body's natural processes, especially when it comes to hormones. (This is why I've never been willing to take birth control pills.) I don't know if your dear friend was put on HRT for menopause, but if so, it's a shame; menopause is another natural process, not a disease. My MIL knows three women who've died in recent years from various "female" cancers, and all three of them were on HRT. I can't help but think of disasters like the Dalkon Shield and thalidomide when I think about HRT. I'm sure it offers great relief for many women, but at what long-term cost? Experimentation on women's bodies is a medical tradition that unfortunately shows few signs of waning.

    My condolences again for your loss. :-(

  4. Adding my sympathies, J, that must have been hard for you.

  5. Yes, L, it's an impossible situation. When the body starts to disintegrate, it's all we can do to try and patch it up - here and there...

    She certainly was happy that day (we both were). I hope her next few days were happy too.

    Thank you, JvS, I do miss her.

    WW, my friend was indeed prescribed HRT when she was going through the menopause: she became a bit paranoid (she even accused *me* of spying on her, etc.) and out of control. I don't know whether HRT would be the remedy of choice these days (that was 20 years ago).

    I suppose I should be grateful that, having had cancer, I wasn't a candidate for HRT. I would never have taken it anyway, unless it had been absolutely necessary (for osteoporosis or something). We are playing with fire.

    Thank you, R. :-)

  6. There are so many terrific doctors out there, ones it is a privilege to know. And then there are the "hand 'em the pills and move on variety.

    I had an employee crack-- badly-- at her desk. Not work related, but on my turf. So I drove her home, mils out, to a Toronto suburb. She asked if we could stop at her doctors. I left her there, went to find a pay phone ( this was pre- mobiles ) to call my husband to tell him where I was. I expected to be a very long time while the physician helped her. Nope, By the time I got back, in 5 minutes, she was ready to go on-- still sobbing for no reason, but cluching newer, stonger Valium, and a script for many refills.
    I was so upset. I tried to get her to come back with me to my caring and careful GP, but no go. I wonder often what state she is in now.

    So may I join in slapping people who take up spots in Med school and then forget to honour their training, their profession, or their patients.?

    And may I sympathize in your loss of a friend who sounds like she was a neat lady.

  7. To Simone, your memorable friend. ♥ xoxo

  8. Hard for me to be rational on this subject. I've had two sisters who had breast cancer. Both took HRT, both put on Tamoxifen afterwards. Neither had a pulmonary embolism from the T. Both are dead from cancer, one at age 64 the other at age 68.

    HRT is probably bad news for most women.

  9. Thanks for getting the word out about HRT as you also remember your friend. I recall listening to a show on National Public Radio about what an unneccessary misogynist hoax HRT had been and its contribution to cancer while I was sitting in the car waiting for my mom who was being fitted for a wig during her cancer (she had been on HRT for years, by the way). She died a few months later. Sad to lose all these wonderful women at such young ages !!

  10. SE, I try to stay away from doctors as much as I can, but it's not always possible. I changed surgeries a few years ago, because the one I was registered with was hellish. The system here is totally crazy. GPs move around all the time and you're hardly ever treated by the same person twice. I hate that. Anyway, GPs are now not allowed to prescribe more than a few Valium tablets at a time, which is annoying for those of us who need to take it once in a while. But I understand what you're saying. I would love to find a truly caring GP.

    Thank you! My friend was a very nice woman. Cheerful, energetic, interested in others.

    Thanks, M! ♥

    TLP, I hope you're looking after yourself and keeping an eye on 'the girls' (as some of my pals call those things...LOL!).

    I'm sorry about your sisters. You've had so much tragedy in your life. May the future be better than the past. :-)

    CS, I'm sorry my post brought back such terrible memories for you.

    We try so hard to forget that we're all getting old. HRT, Botox, cosmetic surgery, etc. - all those things are there to help us pretend it's not happening. They're all dangerous and ultimately futile. When did we stop being able to accept the inevitable graciously? And, as usual, it's women who are required to destroy their health in the pursuit of eternal youth.

  11. Slapping right along with you!

    My mother was on HRT after an early-40s hysterectomy. I finally convinced her to go off of it three years ago, and can only hope that no lasting damage was done. Regardless of whether it was beneficial immediately after the hysterectomy, it had gone on for 20 YEARS and her doctor had no plans to discontinue.

    Why are women's reproductive and aging issues treated like diseases? Can it be that, culturally, our only value is still to be sexually attractive and have babies?

  12. She looks in the picture to be an enjoyer of life...just get that feeling. Preventable loss I'm sure.
    Radical adjustments to someone's hormone levels or any type of natural constitute is sure to eventually leave the person with problems. I found the same things with myself when I first had my accident. I was completely over medicated, automatically given antidepressant medicines and pain killers which I didn't even need. My mind was completely in a fog, I slept for most of the day and could barely complete a sentence. We finally found out that it was the medication causing all of these problems and began eliminating them from my routines. I later came to find that many of these antidepressants lead to high suicidal rates. Pills that the doctors basically prescribe to every single spinal cord injury that arrived on the floor regardless of their medical history or necessity. The pharmaceutical companies push pills on hospital and doctors to prescribe at alarming rate. At a person's most vulnerable time, they are at the hands of an industry more concerned with dollars than care and welfare.
    I am sorry for your loss J. All of ours.

  13. D, let’s indeed hope that your mother will not suffer from taking HRT for so long. I’m sure it was necessary at the time: she would have been in danger of developing all sorts of ailments/illnesses connected to lack of oestrogens. And she was much too young for that.

    Of course, being ‘sexually attractive and having babies’ is the only thing that matters. A menopausal woman might as well be dead: her active and useful role is over. Nature doesn’t need her any more. We may be intellectually advanced beings, but it looks like, ultimately, we can’t fight our biological destiny.

    Yes, SL, she did enjoy life: she was French and a gourmet. She came from Normandy (her mother died there only a couple of years before her) and she loved all that rich food. And art. And music. The only thing she wasn't terribly keen on, ironically, considering who she was married to and where she lived, was the theatre. I kept trying to convert her, but I never managed it completely.

    Hormones have always scared me a bit (I was a translator in a science lab for a while and had to translate great chunks of a book about them): their balance is so delicate.

    That period of your life must have been terrible for you. In cases like yours, medics don’t want to have to control psychological problems as well as the actual injuries, do they? As usual, they're going about it the wrong way.

    Yes, too many good people die much too young.

  14. Fine, loving tribute to your friend. Your posts often strike me as following the best dictates of the 1960s: Mourn, but learn, organize and fight.

  15. Thank you, F! That's a great compliment. :-)


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