Your reviews matter to us – Thank you to all those who took the time to share their feedback about “Journal of a DES Daughter”.
A friend recently asked me a question that I often asked myself before my husband and I started on our “DES activism” journey: is it worth the time, efforts and dedication? The answer is simple: YES! Why? Just read these reviews / testimonials by people affected by the DES drug tragedy in one way or another. We are so grateful to all those who took the time to write a review about our website and we are thrilled that people find my “Journal of a DES Daughter” informative and useful. Your kind words of support keep us motivated. But before you start reading you may wonder what Alexa is…
Selection of Reviews left by DES-exposed individuals
DES – what we should know
I am mostly moved by the reality that there are people unaware of their exposure and the potential adverse health effects of diethylstilbestrol. Many don’t make the link between DES exposure and the health problems they are facing and sometimes even doctors don’t make that link either. Wouldn’t you want to know? by Nate – Aug 07, 2012
My Mom took DES, what did it do to my Sister?
I try to visit from time to time because my Mom took DES to not lose my sister when she was pregnant. I didn’t even know it until my sister told me. I was only 7 when Mom was pregnant and as a child you just want your Mom to be okay and the baby to be alright. My sister has had many health issues, her lupus may be related to this, no one really knows, but she has it in remission right now. I am angry that the patients were given a drug that could cause so many problems for the children and their children. I learn more from this site each time I stop by. Keeping up with the latest research and the lawsuits is unbelievable hard, but this site does it so well and in easy to understand language. What we don’t know is if my Mom took DES with all of us? Each of us has health issues that are very unusual, and it makes me wonder because she did have two miscarriages before she had us. She passed from Dementia, so we will never know. by Michelle – Jul 28, 2012
Wonderful informative Site
The site is very informative on the issue of a drug being administered to pregnant mothers which causes all sorts of problems. When I found out it was put in milk and being a Londoner I was forced to drink the milk as part of the school program, I am disgusted. This issue needs so much attention and unfortunately it receives so little. by Barry – Jul 25, 2012
Did your Mother take DES? It could be causing you Problems now
and one way to find out is to check out this site. I had not known that my mother took DES when she was pregnant. She decided to discontinue it and had very limited exposure. Nevertheless, my jaw dropped when I read the list of things that are common to DES daughters, since I had experienced four or five of them. Great information! by Susan – Oct 15, 2011
The Heartbreak of DES
As someone who has first hand experience with the side effects of DES, I found this blog to be a wealth of information about the drug and its use. The fact is has such lingering effects we may not even know about yet, is disturbing at best. The blog’s writer effectively combines medical research and data with her own personal journey as a DES daughter and mother, who is concerned about the yet unknown effects this drug may have on her own precious daughters and their children. The travesty against woman and men of mothers who were given this drug, as well as their future children, is something the writer communicates with passion and compassion. by Paula – Sep 03, 2011
When I started writing my “Journal of a DES Daughter” a year and half ago I never thought I would be able to reach out to so many people – not only to victims of the DES drug scandal interested in DES health issues but also to people who had never heard about what is often referred to as the “Silent Thalidomide“. Thank you for your continued support. Your reviews mean a lot to us.
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Distilbène® is the trade name for a synthetic hormone (also known internationally as DES or diethylstilbestrol) prescribed in France between 1950 and 1977 to pregnant women to prevent miscarriages. In 1977, 6 years after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advised physicians to discontinue prescribing diethylstilbestrol to pregnant women because of its link to a rare vaginal cancer, UCB Pharma (the manufacturer of Distilbène® in France) decided to make public that the use of this drug was contra-indicated in pregnant women. It is estimated that 200,000 French mothers have been prescribed DES and have given birth to 160,000 DES exposed daughters and sons. The number of children whose grandmother were given DES during pregnancy (DES 3rd generation) is yet to be assessed.
Even though many French women have suffered from the devastating side effects of Distilbène®, very few have understandably taken their case to court. DES trials are long, complicated, expensive and painful for the DES victims and their families. Battling in court against giant and powerful pharmaceutical companies is not an easy thing to do when you also have to deal with health issues such as cancer and infertility linked to your DES exposure. According to Mrs. Martine Verdier, French lawyer who specializes in DES court cases, only 150 to 170 lawsuits have been initiated by Distilbène®’s victims over the past fifteen years. Until 2009, many DES daughters who had filed lawsuits against UCB Pharma and Novartis who respectively distributed Distilbène® and Stilbestrol-Borne® in France were unsuccessful because they were unable to produce the documents proving that their mum had been prescribed the toxic and carcinogenic drug diethylstilboestrol.
A few landmarks in the French DES legal battle history
First lawsuits against UCB Pharma from French women with genital cancers whose mothers had been prescribed Distilbène® during pregnancy (14 years after Distilbène® stopped being prescribed in France and 20 years after DES stopped being prescribed in the USA).
May 24th – Victory for two DES daughters. After eleven years of court battle, the Tribunal of Nanterre recognizes UCB Pharma’s responsibility in the cancer developed by two DES victims. They are granted 15,244 euros in damages. UCB Pharma makes an appeal against the court decision.
April 30th: The Court of Appeal of Versailles confirms the responsibility of UCB Pharma in the 2002 above cases.
The number of lawsuits increases. However the court decisions remain inconsistent because of the difficulties for victims to prove the link between their cancer and Distilbène®.
December 17th: The Tribunal of Nanterre condemns UCB Pharma to pay 310,000 Euros in damages to the family of a deceased DES victim before the end of the procedure.
December 21st: A women who has developed cancer is unsuccessful in Marseille. The court says she can not prove that her mother was prescribed Distilbène® so no link can be established. Yet her body affected by this rare vaginal cancer called adenocarcinoma, so typical of DES exposure, is the ultimate proof. She appeals.
March 08th – The Court of Cassation confirms the responsibility of UCB Pharma in the Marseille court case.
March 19th – Three women won their cases against UCB Pharma and Novartis, who had requested the cancellation of the court decision during an appeal in a view to request an expertise, arguing that the victims should have provided the original DES prescriptions.
October 13th – The Court of Nanterre condemns UCB Pharma to pay 344,000 euros to the family of a young woman who died of cancer before the end of her trial.
September 24th – Turning point – The Supreme Court reverses the burden of proof, forcing UCB Pharma and Novartis to prove that their product is not responsible for the health issues of the DES victims who are taking their case to court. It is a massive step forward in the history of French DES legal battles since it allows women not to be dismissed when they can’t show proof that diethylstilbestrol have been prescribed to their mum. The Court however, gives victims who can’t show the original drug prescription the opportunity to pursue either Novartis or UCB Pharma and claim for compensation. The pursued laboratory now has to prove that the victims did not take their drug, but the competitor’s. UCB Pharma distributed Distilbène® which was by far the main drug used in France whilst Novartis distributed Stilbestrol-Borne®. So it is expected that the battle between UCB Pharma and Novartis is going to be fierce. Novartis won’t want to share responsibilities and compensations costs when their drug’s sales represented only 2% of the market share compared to 98% for UCB Pharma.
The same year, the Court also condemns UCB Pharma to pay “compensation provisions” of 70,000 Euros to a young disabled girl of 12 and 60,000 Euros to her parents.
June 09th – First victory for DES third generation – The Versailles Court of Appeal confirms the decision of the Court of Nanterre made in April 2009 and recognizes a link between taking Distilbène® and disability in the third generation, giving the grandson of a woman who was prescribed Distilbène® 1.7 million Euros in damages.
I wish the decision of the Court of Appeal of Versailles will encourage other victims to engage in this legal battle but it takes more than courage to file a lawsuit for such a complex and difficult journey against what seems to be a lost battle. I really admire the victims and their families who took their DES cases to court and thank them, as well as their lawyers, for allowing justice to make progress not only for them but for many other victims who may consider going to court in the future.
Distilbène®: 20 Years of Legal Battle is just a quick overview of the main dates in the history of DES French lawsuits. These lawsuits won’t bring back the DES daughters who died from cancer to the families affected by di-ethyl stilbestrol. They won’t repair the long term damages of this toxic drug but if nothing else they show that DES is not something invented by the media, or something that DES exposed individuals, like myself, should feel guilty about. We are victims and we deserve that justice is made.
I am missing important information and this blog post doesn’t highlight enough the pain and suffering the victims and their families had to go through to seek justice and get compensation. If you are considering filing a DES lawsuit make sure you seek expert advice and professional support from your local DES Action group.
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.
The Food and Drug Administration claims historical step with DES diethylstilbestrol
In 1971, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning that diethylstilbestrol (DES) was unsafe for pregnant women. Exposed in the womb to DES, the daughters developed a rare form of vaginal cancer and suffered from many more DES side effects. The FDA changed the labelling on this hormone to warn women against taking this drug during pregnancy.
40 years later, on February 22nd 2011, the FDA acknowledged the DES “tragedy”.
Caitlin McCarthy, an award winning screenwriter currently working on the issue of DES, emailed Jeanne Ireland who signed the FDA’s letter of apology, 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”:
Here’s what the FDA emailed back:
Dear Ms. McCarthy,
Thank you for your email. Please be assured that we acknowledge the tragedy of DES. However, it marks an important historical step when FDA took action to stop the use of DES in pregnancy, and to limit its use. This was a real benefit to the health of women and their children. You will notice other milestones described on our website that detail FDA’s authority in response to major tragedies such as Elixir Sulfanilamide,Thalidomide, and the Dalcon Shield. We do not consider the highlighting of these milestones as accolades, but rather learning milestones for the medical community, the public and the world. They serve to make FDA even more vigorous and proactive in implementing strategies to identify products that may have hidden cancer causing potential or serious long-term health problems. In light of this historical record our description will remain on the FDA/OWH website.
Marsha B. Henderson Assoc. Commissioner for Women’s Health (Acting) US Food and Drug Administration
Below is what Caitlin sent Ms. Henderson, along with the two women she copied on her email to her (Terrie Crescenzi and Deborah Kallgren). Note she also included Jeanne Ireland.
You are clearly hoping that the general public thinks a “contraindication for pregnancy” was a “real benefit to the health of women and their children.” Hardly. BANNING the toxic, carcinogenic DES would have been the “real health benefit.” The FDA is lying by omission.
DES should have been banned. There were some doctors in the US who continued to prescribe it after the FDA’s “important historical step,” up until 1980 in some places. And DES continued to be prescribed until the mid-1980s in parts of Latin America, Europe, Australia, and the Third World.
Some advice: When writing to DES victims moving forward, don’t use phrases like “learning milestone.” That is dismissive of the currently proven effects of exposure which 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’ll be sure to share the FDA’s response with others, seeing how you’re sending this canned response out to others who asked the FDA to remove the offensive DES “milestone.”
Thanks for caring about women’s health (not!).
The Food and Drug Administration email is shocking! I was born in France in 1971 where the DES drug continued to be prescribed until 1977 not only to my Mum but to more than 200,000 women … Where are the health benefits of their “action” for the DES mothers, DES daughters and sons born in France and in many other countries after the warning was issued? DES should have been banned.
A big THANK YOU goes to Caitlin for speaking out on behalf of all the DES victims!
When I miscarried in 2001, I rushed to my general practioner (GP) to tell him that I had been exposed to diethylstilbestrol before birth in my mum’s womb. She had been prescribed the Distilbène® throughout her pregnancy. My GP knew very little about prenatal DES exposure and its side effects. I contacted DES Action UK who kindly sent him their leaflets and newsletter. They also provided him with the details of four UK consultants (yes, only four!) who have taken a close interest in DES drugs.
Below are a few quotes from letters of doctors and consultants I saw after I had a hysterosalpingogram in France in 2001.
January 2002: Dr B., my GP, in a letter to Dr W. says: “This French lady has been informed by her French gynaecologist that her uterine cavity is too small and irregular. Also, her fallopian tubes did not show on a hysterosalpingograph (…) she was told she requires a hysteroscopy and laparoscopy.”
February 2002: Reply from Dr W.’s Appointments Office: “Mr W. has a waiting list of approximately 20 weeks whilst we are making every effort to shorten his list we are not at this time able to allocate you a firm appointment date”.
Response dated February 2002 from Dr M. to a letter I sent him to ask for his advice in January of the same year: “I read with interest your letter and the details of your investigations in France. This certainly raises the possibility that you have an abnormally shaped womb. Such abnormalities do occur sporadically but there is an increased risk in someone who has been exposed to DES (…) This condition is in no way dangerous to your health. (…) It is possible that this abnormality contributed to your recent miscarriage but it is equally possible that the problem was related to some developmental disturbance in the pregnancy itself which is a far more common cause of miscarriage. (…) Before advising any treatment for this suspected abnormality I think we would need much more concrete evidence that it is contributing to miscarriage”.
Dr M. continues: “There are two ways to approach this, either we could be pragmatic and advise you to try for another pregnancy (…) alternatively, if you have further miscarriage we could investigate further (…) You are right that it is highly unlikely that you will receive treatment on the NHS for many months”.
March 2002: So I applied to the Department of Health for an E112 for investigations to be carried out in France. My application was denied: “With regret, I am unable to approve your application. Approval for an E112 is normally given only in situations where, for clinical reasons, the local health service provider is unable to provide the patient care required (…) I was unable to established that although DES may perhaps be more commonly investigated in France, it is entirely appropriate for the procedures and care required for your case to be provided by our local health services”.
So basically, I had to wait for an appointment with Dr W., try for another baby and see what happens!!!! You’ve been exposed to DES, so what? Doctors needed more evidence that it was contributing to miscarriage. How could I try again for a baby with such a worrying result from the hysterosalpingogram? I arranged for a hysteroscopy and laparoscopy to be carried out later (September 2002) in France.
July 2002: Dr W.’s Appointments Office: “Further to our phone conversation today, I am writing to confirm the private appointment for you to see Mr W. on Thursday 4th July at the Bristol Nuffield Hospital. The cost of your appointment will be £160”.
“I was pleased to see you for your consultation at the Bristol Nuffield Hospital last week (…) I would suggest you telephone the fertility clinic at Southmead in the near future to arrange a follow up appointment with me after you will have had your laparoscopy and hysteroscopy operation with Professor Frydman.” comments Mr W.
In a letter Dr W. wrote to my GP: “Mrs A. was understandably concerned about the result of her hysterosalpingogram (HSG) and the suggestion that she might have bilateral tubal blockage. She was also concerned about the possible risks of a further miscarriage as a result of her DES exposure in-utero (…) I am not convinced that the HSG show a true tubal occlusion (…) The cavity of the uterus appears normal, apart from being rather excessively distented in the later stages of her HSG examination (…) Although there is no doubt that in-utero exposure to DES increases risk of miscarriage and the risk of premature delivery, the vast majority of women in this situation do have successful pregnancies. The risks are higher if there is any structural abnormality of the shape of the uterine cavity and this does not seem to be the case from Mrs A.’s hysterosalpingogram”.
September 2002: A hysteroscopy and laparoscopy performed by Pr. Frydman in France confirmed a uterine malformation, a T-shape uterus with a septate which was removed by surgery during the examination.
October 2002: Dr W. comments: “I understand that her laparoscopy showed a normal pelvis with patent fallopian tubes. Her hysteroscopy demonstrated a 3cm-long septum which has been partially resected with a Versapoint”.
I returned to France to see Dr T. for a follow-up appointment. She confirmed: “The hysteroscopy and laparoscopy show a typical DES uterus. However the uterine cavity is acceptable thanks to the fact that the septum has been resected.”
Dr T. explained that even though the uterine cavity was large enough to envisage a pregnancy there was a high risk of premature labour.
September 2003: 2 years after I miscarried, I gave birth to a beautiful baby girl, thanks to Pr. Frydman.