In a bid to further raise awareness about the DES issues and reach a wider audience, we’ve created a new DES flickr page. It includes photos of DES events such as the recent DES Symposium at Massachussets General Hospital in Boston, DES adverts, pills, tablets and bottles, DES brochures and newsletters, DES graphs, press cuttings and much more.
flickr® is an online photo management and sharing application. Its primary goals are to help people make photographs available to those who matter to them, and to enable new ways of organizing images. It offers the perfect platform to share photos from around the world. But flickr® is one of those ideas that depends on interconnectivity.
We would like to invite all DES support groups and activists to collaborate to this project by contributing photos to the new Diethylstilbestrol flickr page. By sharing as many images as possible we can create a comprehensive source of DES related photos and really show how far and wide the DES issues are affecting people’s lives.
By “Geotaging” the DES photos we can highlight on the DES Diethylstilbestrol Map where the DES community is taking action to break the wall of silence around the DES issues, as well as where the DES health concerns are being ignored.
DES Diethylstilbestrol flickr® page was created and is administered by Diethylstilbestrol, Journal of a DES Daughter.
If you haven’t done it yet, you can also join us on facebook and/or twitter. Our facebook community is the perfect medium to share views, photographs and DES stories. Follow us on twitter and keep up to date with everything Journal of a DES Daughter is doing.
Help us break the wall of silence around the DES issues by joining these social networks and encouraging your friends to do the same.
Listen to the short radio interview featuring Carol Devine, founder and coordinator of DES Action Australia (NSW), and Dr Jules Black, Queensland Gyneocologist and sexuality expert, about the silence around the DES issue and the difficulties to push for a much needed Australian DES National Public Education Campaign 10 years after the USA first DES national campaign launched in 2001. In Australia it is estimated that 740,000 people have been exposed to DES diethylstilbestrol, yet no such campaign has been held. These people are not receiving proper medical treatment, or making truly informed decisions about their healthcare, as a result.
“Culture of Silence on sex hormone link to cancer“ – Radio Interview about DES featuring Carol Devine and Dr Jules Black, produced by Annamarie Reyes April 05th, 2011.
Below is a short summary and a few quotes from this interesting radio interview from down under:
DES National Public Education Campaigns or the Wall of Silence
The USA has moved to legislate to make it compulsory that a DES National Public Education Campaign is held for DES affected communities. Dr Black explains that the USA acting first on public campaigns came out of increased pressure amongst affected women in the number of millions. In Australia he says “I found constantly with my patients a wall of silence”.
“Since the Food and Drug Administration approved this drug it was important for them to make sure this drug was ok (…). It wasn’t (…). There was a certain degree of cover up fear at first but then when the story came out and due to pressure by female organisations, support groups and so on, they admitted”, comments Dr Black. The FDA acknowledged the DES tragedy 40 years after they issued a warning about the DES cancer link.
The equivalent support group in Australia pushing for change is DES Action Australia (NSW). Carol Devine, the coordinator, explains the strugle to put the issue on the public agenda since the 1970’s when the issue came to light. The USA could not keep it quiet anymore. Too many people were affected by Diethylstilbestrol exposure. The USA went as far as holding a DES National Public Education Campaign in 2001 which led to legislate that research should happen and DES and potential DES affected people should be informed. “Over there”, comments Carol Devine, “there is a fantastic body of women called DES Action USA. They are all right behind making sure these things happen in the USA”. In Australia, Carol Devine sent all the documentation papers about the USA DES National Public Education Campaign to the Australian Federal Health Minister. A few days later she received the package back in her doorstep saying “We do not require these”. “It has been a total shut down on this issue in Australia and quite frankly this is a national disgrace” comments Carol. Advocates in Australia have no choice but take the matters to the Human Rights Commission.
What’s the situation in France and Europe?
In France and in other parts of Europe, the FDA warning issued in 1971 about the health concerns related to Di-ethyl Stilbestrol didn’t get heard and the drug continued to be prescribed to pregnant women until the late 1970’s early 1980’s. The support group Réseau DES France was established in 1994. Their first DES public education campaign was launched in 1997 with the brochure “DES Distilbène® Exposure, the questions you ask yourself” aimed at raising DES awareness amongst the general public. Since 1994 Réseau DES France has engaged in many areas (information, cooperation, advocacy and lobbying, and DES lawsuits to name just a few). They’ve achieved many results and successes such a the right to longer maternity leave for DES pregnancies.
In the United Kingdom, Ireland and the Netherlands support groups have also been created. DES Action UK launched a petition in 2009 to demand a Public Enquiry aimed at investigating the effects of the drug diethylstilboestrol (DES) on women. They collected 130 signatures. “The government statistics are hopelessly out of date and information is not freely or widely made available by the government” write the petition creators Nick de Bois and Barbara Killick.
I can’t stress enough the importance and crucial need for efficient DES National Public Education Campaigns to ensure all people affected by DES exposure are aware of its side effects for them and their children. Collaboration between DES Action groups is also very important. The silence around the DES issue poses health risks in itself as many people including doctors don’t even know what DES is, what the health risks are, and how to prevent them. With so many people affected by it, and so few aware that they have been exposed, it is the responsibility of our governments to raise public awareness of this global health catastrophe.
I wish DES Action Australia (NSW) the very best of luck with their battle for an Australian DES National Public Education Campaign and hope more DES daughters and sons will make their voice heard. We are not alone in this; Millions of people around the world have been exposed to DES so surely if we shout loud enough we will be heard not only by governments but also by fellow DES victims unaware of their DES exposure and its health risks.
Sources: Réseau DES France, DES Action Australia (NSW), DES Action UK
The DES (Diethylstilbestrol) Drug Disaster, 40 Years Later
Below is a guest post from DES Daughter and WONDER DRUG screenwriter Caitlin McCarthy.
The DES Tragedy Is Far From Over
By Caitlin McCarthy
April 22, 2011 marks the 40th anniversary of the DES cancer link being made at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital. DES (diethylstilbestrol), a toxic and carcinogenic synthetic estrogen, is considered the world’s first drug disaster. It was prescribed to millions of pregnant women for decades: from 1938 until 1971 (and in a small number of cases for several years thereafter) in the United States; and until the mid-1980s in parts of Latin America, Europe, Australia, and the Third World. The currently proven effects of exposure include a rare vaginal cancer in DES Daughters; greater risk for breast cancer in DES Mothers; possible risk for testicular cancer in DES Sons; abnormal reproductive organs; infertility; high-risk pregnancies; and an increased risk for breast cancer in DES Daughters after age 40. There are a number of other suspected effects, including auto-immune disorders, but many of these effects are still awaiting further research.
I’m a DES Daughter who was born at the tail end of the tragedy in the U.S. My mother was unknowingly prescribed a prenatal vitamin which contained DES. I didn’t discover my DES exposure until 2005, when a doctor made the connection during a colposcopy. How scary is that?
What’s even scarier is that I’m not alone. Around the world, there are thousands – maybe even millions – of people walking around today, totally unaware that they, too, were exposed to DES. All of these people are not receiving proper medical treatment, or making truly informed decisions about their healthcare, as a result.
In an effort to raise awareness about DES, I wrote a feature film screenplay entitled WONDER DRUG. Set in Boston, Massachusetts, WONDER DRUG interweaves the lives of a Big Pharma executive, feminist doctor, and thirtysomething newlywed across different decades. The script has won awards or received nominations in over 20 international film festival screenplay competitions and labs, including selection as an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation script for the prestigious Hamptons Screenwriters Lab, and a live staged reading of select scenes at the 15th Annual Hamptons International Film Festival, sponsored by the Sloan Foundation and starring Steve Guttenberg (THREE MEN AND A BABY) and Alysia Reiner (SIDEWAYS). Acclaimed independent director Tom Gilroy (SPRING FORWARD) has expressed an interest in directing WONDER DRUG. All we need now is financing. (Producers can contact me via my official website: www.caitlinmccarthy.com.)
I also worked jointly with the offices of US Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Scott Brown (R-MA) on obtaining an apology from the FDA for the DES drug disaster. That effort was first publicized on acclaimed author Elizabeth Searle’s website, and later picked up by renowned media outlets such as The Huffington Post.. (Thank you, Diana Bianchini, for writing the HuffPo piece!).
The FDA declined to apologize, but did send a three-page letter to Senators Kerry and Brown acknowledging DES as a “tragedy” on February 22, 2011. Upon reading the FDA acknowledgement, I immediately emailed Jeanne Ireland (who signed the FDA’s letter), asking the FDA to remove DES from its webpage touting DES as one of its milestones in “100 Years of Promoting and Protecting Women’s Health.” Jeanne Ireland didn’t respond to me. Instead, she palmed me off on Marsha B. Henderson, Associate Commissioner for Women’s Health (Acting) for the FDA. (Check out the communication between Caitlin and Ms. Henderson by reading the post: The FDA is lying by omission).
To this day, the offensive item about DES remains on the FDA’s website. And to this day, not one drug company has ever apologized or accepted responsibility for the DES tragedy. Nevertheless, they have paid millions in verdicts and out-of-court settlements to DES Daughters and Sons who suffered injuries from their exposure.
I am grateful that the 40th anniversary of the DES cancer link has triggered a flurry of press coverage. The Boston Globe recently ran a feature story about concerns for third generation effects; WCVB-TV Boston’s “Chronicle” newsmagazine aired a DES segment; Reuters published an item about DES Grandsons; New England Journal of Medicine ran an article about living with DES exposure; and Psychology Today features a story about remembering DES’s “tragic chapter in American childbirth.” Even the old “Lou Grant” TV episode about DES is making the rounds on Hulu.
On April 25, 1985, Ronald Reagan was the only US President to proclaim a National DES Awareness Week. No other president has ever done that. Why? DES is far from a dead issue.
I will continue my fight to raise awareness about the DES drug disaster. DES victims are the canaries in the coalmine when it comes to synthetic estrogen. The reproductive abnormalities, cancers, and infertility we deal with daily show what could happen to the human race if we don’t employ the precautionary principle. It suggests we act to protect public health when there is credible evidence of harm, rather than wait for absolute proof. What we do now clearly has an impact on future generations. Please join this fight with me.
ABOUT CAITLIN MCCARTHY:
Caitlin McCarthy received her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Emerson College, which is ranked by U.S. News & World Report as one of the best graduate programs in the country. An award-winning screenwriter at international film festivals and labs, Caitlin has a screenplay project in development: RESISTANCE with Populus Pictures and director Si Wall (SPEED DATE; THE DINNER PARTY). In addition to screenwriting, Caitlin serves as an English teacher at an inner-city public high school. Prior to education, Caitlin worked in public relations, where she fostered relationships with the press and crafted messages for companies that were delivered worldwide.
It is now 40 years since the connection between DES exposure and Cancer in DES daughters was discovered. On May 19th 2011, the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Boston, Massachusetts, USA where this connection was first made, will be hosting a DES (Diethylstibestrol) symposium.DES daughters will share their experiences and discuss with DES specialists the lessons learned about embryogenesis, fertility, and carcinogenesis from in utero exposures. The DES symposium is free and open to the general public. Please show your support to this event by attending or spreading the word.
The timing and location of the DES (Diethylstilbestrol) symposium have historical significance. In the late 1960s, there was an unprecedented appearance of a rare vaginal cancer in young women. Cases of Clear Cell Adenocarcinoma (CCA) were diagnosed in an age group never before found to develop it. A DES mother raised the question of whether her daughter’s vaginal cancer might be connected to DES exposure in utero. Doctors confirmed the link between DES and cancer in 1971 and published their findings in the April 1971 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. It is at the MGH that the DES cancer link was first made on April 22, 1971.
In 2011, in the USA and in many other corners of the world, diethylstibestrol continues to affect the lives of not only the DES mothers who were prescribed the carcinogenic drug, the lives of their daughters and sons who have been exposed in utero, but also the lives of their grandchildren. And unfortunately, cancer is not the only health issue that has been linked to DES since 1971. The DES health concerns are still as relevant today as they were in the late 1960’s. Research is still needed, and more needs to be done to ensure the DES victims are not forgotten. The DES (Diethylstilbestrol) symposium is an important event which will contribute to raise awareness of the devastating long-term side effects of synthetic hormones such as diethylstilbestrol.
DES (Diethylstilbestrol) Symposium
WHEN Thursday 19th May 2011
WHERE Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts – Masa Ether Dome, Bulfinch Building
TIME from 3:00 pm to 5:30 pm Reception from 5:30 pm to 6:30 pm in the Ether Dome, Bulfinch 4.
Part I (3 – 4 pm) of the May 19, 2011 symposium will feature a DES Daughters’ Panel, moderated by Annekathryn Goodman, MD. The DES Daughters’ Panel will include:
Andrea Goldstein, RN – DES daughter and DES activist since 1978; recognized throughout the DES community as the historian for the DES issue.
Caitlin McCarthy – DES Daughter and screenwriter of WONDER DRUG (www.wonderdrugthemovie.com), an award-winning screenplay about the DES drug disaster (currently seeking financing).
Cheryl Roth – DES daughter who does not want the DES tragedy forgotten. She is interested in ensuring that future generations who may be affected by the ingestion of the drug by grandmothers, great-grandmothers, etc. have knowledgeable physicians to treat them.
Part II (4 – 5:30 pm) will be the Scientific Session, moderated by John Schorge, MD. Speakers and topics will include:
Michael Greene, MD (Division of Maternal Fetal Medicine) – History of the use of DES in pregnancy.
Robert Young, MD (Department of Pathology) – Pathologic changes in the female reproductive tract after in utero DES exposure
Thomas Toth, MD (Division of Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility) – The structural changes in the uterus and cervix and implications for fertility after in utero DES exposure.
Marcela Del Carmen, MD (Division of Gynecologic Oncology) – Clear Cell Carcinoma of the vagina in DES exposed women.
Annekathryn Goodman, MD (Division of Gynecologic Oncology) – Endocrine disruptors and the potential molecular basis of carcinogenesis DES exposure.
DES events such as the DES symposium are a great acknowledgement that Di-ethyl stilbestrol is not something of the past. The DES tragedy is far from over so please help support this event by attending or spreading the word. The Diethylstibestrol DES symposium is free and open to the general public.
This event is sponsored by Vincent Obstetrics and Gynecology.
Diethylstilbestrol (DES) has affected and continues to affect in many different ways the health and lives of those who have been exposed to this drug more than 30, 40, 50 years ago. Cancer, infertility problems, ectopic pregnancies, premature labour, depression, genital abnormalities are just a few of the many delayed side effects of DES exposure; but what most DES victims share in common is that at some point in their lives they all had to face doctors who completely dismissed their DES concerns, doctors who disregarded their medical conditions as being a consequence of diethylstilbestrol.
Despite overwhelming medical evidence, DES continues to be dismissed by doctors
Over 10 million people have been exposed to diethylstilbestrol worldwide between 1938 and the late 70’s, early 80’s in some countries. After more than 40 years of research, there are confirmed health risks and side effects associated with DES exposure.
An entire generation of women have had great problems with infertility and pregnancy. Women and girls as young as nine years old have died from a rare form of vaginal cancer called adenocarcinoma, others have suffered from irreparable genital malformations. Many DES sons have experienced health problems including undescended testicles, epididymal cysts, and testicular cancer. Yet, many doctors dismiss a history of DES exposure as the cause of their patients’ conditions – even for those who were born in the timeframe the drug was prescribed to their mums before a health warning was issued by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1971 and even for those who have evidence that they have been exposed before birth to this carcinogen and teratogen.
When Michael Freilick founder of the National DES Sons Network said to his doctor he was a DES son, his doctor replied: “Forget it. It has nothing to do with your testicular cancer.”
When DES daughter Kathy saw her doctor to share her concerns about DES she was told that because she had been conceived a few years after doctors were supposed to stop prescribing DES, she couldn’t have been exposed. Yet her genital abnormality is only seen in DES daughters.
“I hear the struggles, the anger, the depression, the cries of “why me?” echoing from every part of the blogosphere. And these insensitive docs just blithely dismiss it as not a big problem! (…). And then, there are the stories of multiple miscarriages, stillbirths, and so on. Stuff I don’t even want to imagine, but I know is a daily reality to a lot of DES exposed women” writes Kathy in her blog “Women to women childbirth education”.
I recently gave a DES leaflet to my physician hoping it would make her more aware of DES and breast cancer risks for women of my age. She smiled when she read that DES was causing infertility problems. She commented: “Well surely you’ve not been affected by infertility problems with 3 daughters…”.
The lack of recognition of the risks and health issues associated with DES is very distressing for those who have to put up with the consequences of this drug disaster in their everyday lives. This is not only a burden for DES daughters and sons throughout their lives but it poses a health risk in itself due to the consequences of wrong diagnosis, or lack of preventive care which can sometimes lead to disastrous consequences.
Anne-Françoise Lof in her beautifully written book “Saskia or the mourning of a Distilbène baby” tells the sad story of her baby daughter born too early to survive at 22 weeks pregnancy. Anne-Françoise knew her mum had been prescribed Distilbène® during pregnancy, she warned her doctor. Yet, the high risk of premature labor was dismissed. The story of not only Saskia but many other premature babies shows the tragic consequences of some doctors’ misinformation and dismissive attitude towards diethylstilbestrol.
Before the FDA issued a warning that DES was not safe for mums and their unborn babies, many doctors happily prescribed a drug that had not been properly tested and some even continued to prescribe it long after the warning was issued. Others questionned its efficiency and raised their concerns about the possible side effects. Years later, now that many health problems have ruined and continue to ruin the lives of DES exposed individuals very few aware doctors acknowledge the link between diethylstilbestrol exposure and their patients’ conditions.
Many young doctors don’t even know about DES and its consequences. To them it’s something of the past that their predecessors have prescribed in the belief that it would prevent miscarriage, especially if the women had a previous history of miscarriage, bleeding during pregnancy or diabetes. Most DES daughters and sons know more about diethylstilbestrol than their doctors and end up in an awkward situation where they have to educate their doctors in order to get appropriate treatment and preventive care.
DES Aware Doctors List
Most DES Action Groups have compiled a list of doctors aware of the DES history and its devastating consequences. Back in 2001, when I asked DES Action UK if they could provide me with their doctors list they provided me with a list of only four aware doctors, all London based, yet it is estimated that more than 300,000 people have been exposed to diethylstilboestrol in the UK. In the U.S. the doctors list is a compilation of the names of aware doctors given to DES Action USA by its members who were satisfied with their care. These recommended doctors are not considered DES experts, but rather aware doctors who do not dismiss DES concerns. I have no doubt that if DES Action Groups were naming and shaming the doctors who dismiss the DES concerns of their patients the list would be a lot longer.
My DES pregnancy had an happy ending thanks to a fantastic, sensitive and well informed doctor / professor. Without him I wouldn’t be celebrating mother’s day today. So there are aware doctors out there who know how to help DES victims. If you know a sensitive doctor that you would recommend please contact your local DES Action Group and share his / her contact details. It may help others.
If only doctors could understand, be more informed, aware and sensitive to what diethylstilbestrol has done to people’s lives. Di-ethyl stilbestrol is not something of the past. It hasn’t gone away. Years after exposure, the consequences and health risks for DES daughters, sons and their children are still there. The delayed consequences of the drug are felt and will most likely continue to be felt for many years to come as reveal new research carried out to determine the impact on the third generation. DES daughters and sons want answers and recognition. We need, we demand sensitive, aware doctors who acknowledge the danger and continued risks of DES exposure. Is it too much asking? The FDA waited 40 years to acknowledge the DES tragedy. How much longer doctors will need to stop dismissing their patients’ DES concerns?
Sources: Women to women childbirth education, DES Gone but not Forgotten.
Have you ever thought like me that the DES nightmare was behind you? This week the sad and painful reality of DES exposure hit me again after reading a message from Sharon, a 39 years old DES daughter who has recently been diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I have never tried to tie together everything that I have been through with my exposure to diethylstilbestrol. I truly thought that since I was able to have a baby, that was all there was to the story” says Sharon.
Her Breast Cancer Journal really moved me and made me want to find out more about DES exposure and breast cancer risks. The information found on the Net did not reassure me and made me even more concerned and upset.
A 2006 study published in the August issue of the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention shows that DES daughters are at higher risk of breast cancer as they age than are women who weren’t exposed to diethylstibestrol. A DES daughter is already known to be at higher risk of clear cell carcinoma of the vagina and cervix and her mother has already been shown to be at higher risk of breast cancer. This study just highlights once more that the DES side effects can continue to affect the lives of those who have been exposed to the drug, long after exposure.
The finding of this study supports the hypothesis that one risk factor for breast cancer is prenatal exposure to higher than normal levels of estrogen which is the case for the children of the mothers who have been prescribed diethylstilbestrol during pregnancy. That theory has been around, but it has been difficult to study. Unfortunately for DES daughters, the DES tragedy offers scientists a direct way to test / confirm this hypothesis.
According to the study, DES daughters 40 or older have nearly twice the risk of breast cancer than women who have not been exposed. The rate ratio is even higher for women 50 and older, but the numbers of women in that group age were too few at the time of the study to make a precise estimate of risk.
In addition, having no children or having a first child at age 30 or older, which is often the case for DES daughters due to the infertility / pregnancy problems caused by diethylstilboestrol, also increases a woman’s risk of breast cancer.
The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s DES Update encourages DES daughters to follow a regular schedule for breast cancer screening, be breast aware and practise self-examinations as a way to detect any lumps in the breasts. Scheduling mammogram examinations every 1-2 years for women 40 years or older is also highly recommended.
These screenings and examinations are not cheap procedures. I recently had to convince my GP to let me have PAP/Smear tests annually when the UK National Health Service (NHS) only recommends them every 3 years but I was told that I would have to pay for them. Luckily, I have a private health insurance who after a long and animated phone conversation agreed to cover for the cost of annual smear tests under a special personal health fund that I wasn’t aware existed in my policy. As per an annual mammogram examination, a bit more convincing is still needed before my physician confirms it is justified under my circumstances. The cost involved won’t be be covered unless I have symptoms which would justify a mammogram.
“We can’t be too safe. Interesting that your physician also says it’s no big deal. My fear is that many of them don’t understand it, and much of our medical care depends on the fact that they do” comments Sharon.
If I were a heavy smoker, the risk of cancer would be taken a lot more seriously and I would most probably not have to do all this convincing to have regular thorough health check-ups. My GP would not listen to me with that look on her face leaving me feel paranoid and hypochondriac. It raises the same question over and over again: what will it take for health care providers and the NHS (or the equivalent in other countries) to take DES daughters seriously and provide us with the preventive care and support we need? Don’t they know that people are suffering from cancer caused by DES exposure as I write this blog post? DES is not something of the past. Sharon’s breast cancer was diagnosed in January 2011. She was exposed to DES in 1971, like me.
So for those of us who may think the DES nightmare is behind us, think twice. A DES daughter must stay vigilant about breast cancer screening, including regular mammograms (if you can afford it), and be careful about using supplemental hormones. As Sharon too rightly says in her Breast Cancer Journal, the DES threat is always there, it is not a matter of if but when. I wish Sharon and her family all the best in her battle against breast cancer.
Sources: CDS’s DES update, MedPageToday: DES Daughters at Higher Risk of Breast Cancer by Michael Smith.
This week I am honoured to publish a guest post from Carol Devine, DES daughter, Founder and Coordinator of the Sydney based group, DES Action Australia-NSW, which formed in 1995. Many people, including those unaffected by Diethylstilbestrol I am sure will be interested in reading Carol’s post as it shows how long and difficult the road is for a DES activist advocating for the needs of DES exposed people in Australia.
DES Activist outside USA – An Australian Journey
It is my impression that in comparison with USA, the downplaying, dismissiveness and resistance by governments in countries outside USA to the DES exposure issue have been stauncher. In Australia, to the demise of our comparatively smaller DES exposed population, the DES problem has been minimised, even with the glib remark, “It’s only a problem in USA”. Cold and uncaring comments that disenfranchise DES exposed Australians, have possibly evolved from something that runs much deeper and are firmly entrenched.
My pet theory is: that from the time the DES cancer link was made in USA in 1971, until the time this causal link first reached the news media in other DES-affected countries, drug companies and those with vested interest exerted utmost damage control outside USA. In concentrated effort, every opportunity would have been taken within this bonus timeframe to use influence to ensure government ideas on managing the DES exposure problem would protect those companies. Those ideas by government would be “set in concrete” for all time. Just a theory of mine – it’s no rocket science! However, it seeks to explain those cold, uncaring comments and the horrific facts revealed when our DES Action group in NSW, Australia, accessed government documents. It might also explain the uncanny similarity in the worded government responses to DES Action UK and DES Action Australia-NSW.
To be frank, from my viewpoint, the journey for an activist advocating for the needs of DES exposed people to government is like “banging your head against a brick wall” – many times. However, there may be greater chance of some success by developing the strongest possible argument when lobbying government. This means having the best available information. For this, it means digging – a lot.
Digging for numbers
Citing the best feasible estimate of the extent of the DES exposure in Australia is absolutely necessary for government recognition of the DES problem. No numbers equates to having no significant problems, or even not to exist at all. In Australia, to obtain an estimate, the most reliable data sources are the general population health data (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare -established 1982) for incidence of clear cell adenocarcinoma vagina/cervix and the State Cancer Registries (prior to 1982). Reports offering an estimate by cancer experts to government have been found to be grossly inaccurate. Adverse drug reaction reports are also unreliable, since cases of the DES associated cancer are not always reported by medical professionals. Delving into government comments about any unusual data trends and investigating inconsistencies with data have been important. By delving it was found that in the early 1980s, a doctor phoned the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) to instruct that reports of DES associated cancer no longer be recorded. To our dismay, the TGA (Australia’s drug watchdog) complied with this.
Digging for history
It makes sense in advocacy to know the full inside story of previous management. In Australia, Freedom of Information applications were necessary to obtain committee minutes of the TGA in relation to how the DES problem has been addressed since 1971. The minutes are all-telling and disturbing for everyone affected by DES, uncovering many shocking revelations. However, the information contained is very necessary in providing a baseline for approaches in lobbying. These documents showed the TGA’s first decision was to take a reactive role to any media arising about DES, rather a proactive role in issuing media releases. This decision was made out of consideration of the possibility of creating alarm.
Our Lobbying Experience
With strong argument for improved management of the DES problem, the government still manages to duck and weave continually. The experience is of “going around in circles”, whilst at the same time, trying to become familiar with the unreliable government “machine”. Astonishingly, the DES issue is shoved aside by individuals holding government positions with roles appropriate to giving attention to the DES problem. In the trial and error process of lobbying, the problem is finding exactly where the DES issue can position itself. DES Action Australia-NSW has recently presented the DES issue for the attention of the Australian Human Rights Commissioner. In spite of the many negative aspects of the lobbying experience mentioned in this article, there is still to this day, no reason to stop these endeavours on behalf of DES exposed people.
Importance of networking
If situations and experiences are similar, the power of networking can never be underestimated. Together, there can be learning from each other’s successes and failures. It is my hope that by sharing our experience, it will encourage networking between activists for the DES cause, and in particular, between activists outside USA.
The results of a recent French study highlighting the psychological problems associated with exposure to Diethylstilbestrol (DES) and other synthetic sex hormones really confused me. Even though it may be extremely difficult to scientifically establish a strong link between DES exposure and mental health for many reasons, one just needs to read or listen to the stories of DES victims to realise how badly these victims have been affected not only physically but mentally. All these stories have one thing in common, they all tell a story of guilt, anxiety and fear.
Guilt: most DES mothers and daughters blame themselves
How would you feel as a mum if because of a drug that you took during pregnancy, your child is suffering from cancer, fertility problems, and / or psychiatric disorders? Most mothers who took what was believed to be at the time a revolutionary drug to stop them miscarrying, are understandably feeling guilt and struggle in their day to day life to cope with the burden of this guilt pushing some of them to the brink of depression. Most of the time, it affects their relationship with their daughters and sons. Even though I get on really well with my mum, DES has definitely left a dark cloud on our relationship. A life with DES and its consequences is not what she wanted for me and my husband. For the great sadness deeply felt when I miscarried, all the tears when I thought I would never have a child, the stress of a surgery, the constant anxiety during a high risk pregnancy, how could I blame my mum when she was just following in good faith and trust her doctor’s prescription? Yet, she keeps feeling sorry for me and apologizing for all the troubles caused by Distilbène® (the French name under which DES was prescribed to pregnant women in France until 1977).
My mum, unlike many other DES mothers, didn’t grief a daughter killed by one of the most devastating side effects of diethylstilbestrol: vaginal cancer (ccac). She didn’t go through the psychological pain of accepting that she would never be a grandmother. I, unlike many other DES daughters, never gave birth to a baby born too early to survive because of premature labour (another dreadful consequence of DES exposure). With 3 daughters, I am one of the luckiest DES victims (at least so far …) and I often even question whether I should consider myself as a DES victim when so many women have died or have seen their chances of becoming a mum ruined by the consequences of this drug.
When I read in the book “Moi, Stéphanie, Fille Distilbène” by Stéphanie Chevalier, that I was not the only DES daughter feeling shame and guilt for somehow escaping the worst, it brought tears to my eyes. In her very moving book, Stéphanie tells her DES story but also the story of Véronique who despite a very difficult pregnancy gave birth to a beautiful little boy. Véronique says: “I feel bad that I had a son when so many DES daughters will never know the joy of motherhood”. Stéphanie explains what her lawyer, Mrs Martine Verdier, replied to the DES-exposed daughters and sons invited to discuss DES trials in a meeting organised by the French association “Les Filles Distilbène” of which Stéphanie is President: “There is no such thing as being a “half victim”. What differentiates the DES victims is the extent of the prejudice caused”. Before the joy of giving birth, some women miscarry; others loose a child in the late stage of their pregnancy, many never even have children and divorce as a result but what is sure is that DES-exposed individuals, regardless of the extent of the physical damage caused by the drug, all have to suffer from the psychological consequences of the painful situations that they have to face throughout their lives because of diethysltilbestrol.
To carry on the topic of guilt, what if the third generation (DES grandchildren) have been adversely impacted by DES? What if my daughters are at a higher risk of cancer, what if they too have uterine malformations and won’t be able to have children. Will I feel guilt? My mum didn’t know when she took Distilbène® what the consequences would be. When I had my daughters I knew I had been exposed to DES and I knew there may be consequences on the third generation too. Will they blame me? I don’t even want to think about it…
DES tragedy, who is to blame?
I definitely think the wrong persons are blaming themselves. But who is to blame for the DES tragedy? Doctors who continued to prescribe the drug despite warnings about its side effects? The FDA who didn’t ban it and today recognizes the DES tragedy but refuses to apologize to the victims? The pharmaceutical companies who heavily promoted DES use to doctors? Governments who failed to protect the health of their citizens when health warnings were issued? Am I missing someone? something? So many questions remain unanswered. Surely this drug scandal could have been avoided like many others such as Thalidomide (the sedative drug introduced in the late 1950s and withdrawned in 1961 due to teratogenicity and neuropathy). Surely other people than the DES victims should feel guilt and shouldn’t be sleeping well at night!
DES “Epée de Damoclés”
Anxiety and fear, two more psychological consequences DES-exposed individuals have to deal with. Because of the risks of cancer associated with DES exposure, DES daughters and mothers have to be checked more regularly than other women. I have no doubt that like me they all get very anxious and fear that the results of their regular DES examinations (including smear/pap test, mammogram, etc…) may be positive when they come in. What about the fear of losing a child at any time during a DES pregnancy, the fear of seeing your partner leaving you if you can’t give him a son or a daughter, the fear of what will happen to your children if you die from a cancer caused by DES? The list of these DES related fears and anxieties is long and I am not even mentioning all the other emotions such as anger and frustration often felt by DES victims.
Whilst some people may question the effects of DES exposure on mental health, there is no doubt that diethylstilbestrol has not only caused physical damages to the children born from mothers who took the drug during their pregnancy, but also caused a lot of pain, and psychological suffering in DES mothers, daughters, sons, and their families. Even if there wasn’t any link between DES exposure and mental health which I doubt, the psychological consequences of the problems that DES brought into people’s lives can’t be undermined. More research is needed to establish a link between DES exposure and mental health. In the meantime, the psychological difficulties such as anxiety disorders, depression due to the overwhelming feeling of guilt experienced by DES-exposed individuals must be acknowledged and health care providers should take them into consideration when caring for their DES patients.
Diethylstilbestrol (Distilbène), the synthetic sex hormone prescribed in France up to 1977 (and in many other countries under different names) to pregnant women to prevent miscarriage and premature labour, has caused genital abnormalities, infertility problems, and cancer in children exposed in utero to the drug. A new report reveals that DES may have done even more damage, often associated in cocktail with other estrogens as 17-alpha Ethinyl oestradiol (synthetic EE) or with synthetic Progestin.
A disturbing study conducted since 2004 by Marie-Odile Soyer-Gobillard, former director emeritus at the CNRS (French National Center for Scientific Research) reveals a link between DES and mental illness issues. In January 2011, and next in October 2011, 6 members of the association Hhorages (Halt to Synthetic Hormones for Pregnancies), of which Marie-Odile is the president, were received by the AFFSSAPS (the equivalent of the Food and Drug Administration in the U.S. now named AFSM, French Agency for Medicament Security) to discuss her findings. A working group composed of experts from the agency and the association will now be formed in April.
DES Psychological Side Effects New French Stats
So what does the French study (published in the International Journal “Medicine and Longevity*) reveal? Marie-Odile sent questionnaires to 529 DES mothers and studied a group of 1180 children of which 740 have been exposed to DES in-utero. Of this group, 15 were still born and 684 suffer from psychiatric disorders and / or physical malformations while 41 were not ill. Amongst the studied population, the psychiatric illnesses are essentially depression, anorexia, schizophrenia, …). Today, Hhorages tots up 1223 testimonies representing 1223 mothers with a total amount of 2674 children. Amongst them, 1676 were in utero exposed to synthetic hormones, 1549 exposed children are ill: amongst them: 916 present psychic diseases « only », 448 present somatic and psychic diseases , 183 present somatic diseases « only »; 126 exposed are not ill. Amongst the observed siblings in the same family, only those who have not been exposed to DES in-utero, don’t show signs of psychiatric disorders …. Could this be just a coincidence?
Another shocking statistic: of all the cases reported since 2004, when the study started, Marie-Odile identified 150 suicide attempts series and 48 suicides. In some families, 2 or 3 children have ended their lives leaving their parents with a profound sense of guilt. Amongst the observed siblings in the same family, only those who have not been exposed to DES in-utero, don’t show signs of psychiatric disorders… Could this be just a coincidence?
Herself DES mother, Marie-Odile Soyer-Gobillard has been fighting since 1998 for the recognition of the link between synthetic sex hormones taken during her pregnancy including Distilbène®, and the psychological disorders of her own children, Nicolas and Valerie, who both committed suicide three years apart in 1995 and 1998 at age 28 and 27. She founded the association Hhorages with 3 other mothers in 2000 to raise awareness of the risks synthetic sex hormones prescribed during pregnancy pose on children born from these pregnancies.
According to Fran Howell (Executive Director DES Action USA), American researchers have been having trouble finding a solid link between DES and mental illness issues, except depression. But through the years DES Action USA have heard many reports of DES-exposed individuals suffering with psychological issues.
Pat Cody, co-founder of DES Action USA, wrote in the spring 2005 issue of VOICE (DES Action Newsletter) about why it is difficult for researchers to study these questions and develop definitive answers: “Here, some of the difficulties in getting a valid study are caused by a wide spread in the DES dosages mothers got, in the time in pregnancy when they got it, and for how long they took it (…). Sex hormones are, however, known to have effects on the organization of the brain in experimental animals with consequential behavioural effect”.
A 2005 study carried out by Professor Caston, a neurologist at the University of Rouen (France), has demonstrated that rats born to mothers treated with synthetic sex hormones developed anxiety and depressive behaviour. “These results could be explained by the effect of the molecule on the part of the brain involved in emotional processes, which is under development in foetuses”, the report says.
Could all the known DES side effects which have destroyed the lives of many DES mothers, daughters, and sons, just be the top of the iceberg? Already concerns for the grandchildren of DES mothers arise with a higher risk of hypospadias (misplaced opening of the penis) in sons of DES daughters. If more DES side effects are scientifically validated, DES could well be a real time bomb!
I welcome Marie-Odile’s research study and thank her and Hhorages for their combat and work on behalf of all the DES victims who suffer from the mental side effects of this drug.
More research is critically needed not only to provide DES-exposed individuals with appropriate care and support but for the next generation and all the people who may continue to suffer from the physical or mental consequences of this drug in the future. Please support Hhorages and your local DES Action group, and stay tune for more revelations about DES exposure and its devastating side effects.
DES Action USA Voice newsletter spring 2005
DES Action USA
*Soyer-Gobillard, M.O. 2011. Endocrine disrupters and effects on behavioral disorders: No, we have not as yet learnt all our lessons concerning the DES story. Médecine et Longévité, (Elsevier Masson), 3, 67-74. ** Nicolas Kalfa, M.D., Ph.D,.Francoise Paris, M.D., Marie-Odile Soyer-Gobillard, Ph.D., Jean-Pierre Daures, M.D., Ph.D. and Charles Sultan, M.D., Ph.D. Prevalence of hypospadias in grandsons of women exposed to diethylstilbestrol during pregnancy: a multigenerational national cohort study. Fertil Steril, 2011, 95, 2574-2577(published by American Society for Reproductive Medicine).
Celebrate DES mothers & daughters who advocate for all DES victims!
Tuesday 8th March 2011 marks the centenary of International Women’s Day (IWD). Celebratory events are taking place across the world marking women’s achievements and contributions to society.
Since 1911, International Women’s Day offers the perfect opportunity to appreciate the women who have the biggest influence in our lives whether they are politicians who are a making difference in our local community, celebrities we admire, or simply mums and grandmas who balance work and home beautifully or to whom we look up to.
This Tuesday 08th March, why not make International Women Day 2011, a day to celebrate DES mothers and DES daughters.
Join “Journal of a DES Daughter” in celebrating the courage of all the women who find the strength to fight every day against the devastating side effects of diethylstilbestrol and acknowledging the tremendous work of those who dedicate their lives to advocate for the victims of the DES tragedy.
Join the International Women’s Day celebrations by:
Attending the Facebook event“Journal of a DES Daughter – International Women’s Day”
Changing your facebook status to read: “Today I celebrate International Women’s Day and the DES mothers and daughters who advocate for all the DES victims”.
Let’s celebrate women such as Val Pat Cody (health activist and co-founder of DES Action USA who sadly passed away in September 2010), Anne Levadou (President of DES Network France), Andrea Goldstein (DES activist and DES historian), Carol Devine (founder and coordinator of DES Action Australia – NSW) and Caitlin McCarthy (award winning screenwiter currently working on Wonder Drug the true story of DES); as well as all the activist women who contribute to raising awareness about DES exposure and speak out on behalf of all the DES victims.
These women who give their lives to help others are a true inspiration to me and I am sure to many of us. Carol Devine comments on her blog: “Pat was a remarkable women. During the process of our establishing DES Action Australia-NSW, Pat was a great mentor and friend. If not for her invaluable ideas and encouragement, the group may not have lifted off the ground. She will be very much missed“.