Pregnancy drug popular from 1950s-70s blamed for breast cancer in "DES daughters"


29 Responses to “Pregnancy drug popular from 1950s-70s blamed for breast cancer in "DES daughters"”

  1. mindysan33 says:

    You know, two of my aunts got breast cancer…. it was the oldest and the youngest.  I know the distance between all the other siblings (6 in all) was a year or two at most. But between the next youngest and the youngest, it was 9 years.  Now I’m curious if there were miscarriages between the last 2? 

  2. peregrinus says:

    Nice.  Bless the internet for bringing people together easily to identify common side-effects and take action on them.

    • valeriekeefe says:

      If I get cancer, it probably won’t be because of the estrogen I’m taking either, but it does elevate the risk slightly… not enough for me to think it more dangerous than aspirin, but slightly. If they wanted to settle a class action suit at 10% liability, then we might be able to talk.

  3. I’m interested by how it prevents abortion. Was the term used differently back in the day?

      • Huh, learn something new every day. I did do the good commenter thing and check out the Wiki page (after asking the question, of course…) – seems its a term that can be applied to ‘induced’ and ‘spontaneous’.

      • rattypilgrim says:

         But the ad reads, “to prevent abortion, miscarriage, and premature labor”. I still don’t get it.

        • Antinous / Moderator says:

          At some point, abortion meant before a certain number of weeks and miscarriage after that point.

          • rattypilgrim says:

             Oh, interesting. Does that mean people knew it took time for the sperm to reach the egg, were making a clear distinction between a fertilized egg and a fetus, that one had the potential for cells to form what would become the fetus? It’s 2013 and many of our contemporaries seem to think a human is immediately in process at the instant of coitus. Sorry if OT.

          • Antinous / Moderator says:

            No, it was first trimester versus second trimester maybe. Something like that. I haven’t heard that distinction used for about 40 years, though.

          • marilove says:

            @Antinous_Moderator:disqus  You are not that old?!?

  4. Hugh Johnson says:

    96% live delivery with desPLEX!
    Whoa…what is the % without?

    • Benjamin Palmer says:

      Good question!

      Someone tell me if I am reading this correctly: (
      It seems to me that the live delivery rate was over 98% in 1950, if it really is as simple to calculate as % of fetal deaths (68,262) compared to total live births (3,554,149)? But good chance I’m missing something here.

      • Sadly, the real answer is “We have no freaking idea”. That’s because most of the data we have on miscarriage rates was only collected post-DES. Since the 1980s, we’ve learned a TON more about miscarriage frequency because people started studying it a bit more in-depth than simply cataloguing the number of women who turn up at the hospital. So it’s basically useless to try to compare modern miscarriage rates to those from 1950. 

  5. jandrese says:

    It must be terrifying for a drug company to have something that appears to be safe and effective, but then causes problems 60 years later and be sued for them.  Unless there was some evidence that Eli Lilly covered up studies saying it was unsafe or had some sort of idea that this might happen I have trouble seeing the merits of this case.  Certainly these ladies aren’t suggesting that drug testing happen for 60 years (100 years?  How long?) before approval? 

    • Jen Doyle says:

      It looks like the drug wasn’t even patented when it was being pushed by Eli Lilly. It’s possible Eli Lilly didn’t even *make sure* it was safe and effective before they started telling doctors it was safe (as the comment below shows.)

      • Yup. The problem wasn’t that Eli Lilly got screwed. The problem was that they rushed this to people BEFORE they had data on safety. And then kept on selling it after data started to suggest that it actually increased miscarriage rates. 

        • rattypilgrim says:

           Joe Papantonio (consumers’ rights lawyer and Ring of Fire host) says people shouldn’t use drugs until at least 5 years after they’ve been on the market but he thinks 10 years on the market is even a better idea.

    • Antinous / Moderator says:

      We talked about long-term problems with DES in one of my high school science classes. I graduated in 1975.

    • cdh1971 says:

      “It must be terrifying for a drug company…”

      Corporations are people my friend.

  6. Press Watch says:

    My mother took a whopping dose of DES, pushed by the Air Force doctor, in 1958, “to prevent miscarriage.”  I was born with malformed testes, two ovaries on either side of my ureter, and a feminized brain–or in other words, I am a hermaphrodite.  Due to the presence of a male organ I was raised male.  It got better–43 years later. 

  7. chgoliz says:

    For the second half of the time it was being heavily prescribed, it was known to cause *more* miscarriage rather than less (discovered in 1959, I believe).  Several of my doctors have a theory that my mother took it because she was trying to induce a miscarriage.

  8. I know I recommend this book a lot, but if you want to know more about DES, you should pick up “Coming to Term” by Jon Cohen. It’s an amazing book about miscarriage science and has a ton of good reporting on this. 

  9. The veterinary field still uses DES for urinary incontanance in female dogs. I wonder how easily it is absorbed thru skin contact? I will have to ck this out. I often wonder if reproductive issues may have not been slightly from the drugs that are still used in animal science but pulled from the human market years ago. There a number I can think of, one that even causes cancer if touched but still used on wounds in animals.  

  10. Lilah says:

    DES is strongly linked to clear cell adenocarcinoma of the vagina in daughters of women who used the drug, so I would not at all be surprised if it were linked to another disease.

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