Birth, Babies, and Beyond

Pregnancy, birth, and parenting

Once Popular Pregnancy Drug Ups the Odds of Breast Cancer Among Daughters

New study links DES to increased risk of breast cancer

A new study validates what hundreds of women have suspected all along--that a hugely popular drug taken by millions of pregnant women decades ago--triggered not only gynecological problems but also increases the risk of breast cancer.

The drug, DES, was was given to millions of pregnant women from 1938 to 1971 to prevent miscarriages. For years, doctors have known that girls whose mothers took the drug were at increased risk for vaginal cancer, infertility, and other gynecologic problems. (The drug was pulled from the market in 1971 as soon as the vaginal cancer link was proven.) The other dangers have emerged since then. DES-sons are also at risk for infertility.

Many DES daughters have become health activists to promote information and to prevent another DES-like tragedy from ever happening again. These women have suspected that DES also increases the risk of breast cancer among those exposed to the drug. A study published in today's issue of the New England Journal of Medicine confirms their fears. The study found--among other risks--that DES daughters are about twice as likely to get breast cancer compared to women who were never exposed to the drug. Overall, women have a 1 in 50 chance of developing breast cancer by the age of 55. Women exposed to DES, according to this study, have a 1 in 25 chance.

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As Dr. Sharmila Makhija, women's health chief at the University of Louisville told Forbes magazine, "We don't want to cause a panic of everyone rushing out thinking they're going to get cervical or breast cancer. They just need to have a conversation with their physician."



Randi Hutter Epstein, M.D., is the author of Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth from the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank.


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