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.