Women Prescribed DES While Pregnant
When a prescription was written to prevent miscarriage from 1938 – 1971 in the U.S. (and especially in the 1950s thru the early 1960s), it is highly likely the drug being given was DES (or included DES with progesterone). It was frequently used if a woman had a previous miscarriage, diabetes or a problem pregnancy with bleeding, threatened miscarriage or premature labor.
DES was primarily prescribed in pill form. Up until the mid to late 1950s some women were given DES shots. While the use of injections continued through the years, they were given less frequently as time went on. Another form of administration was via vaginal suppositories (sometimes called pessaries).
Complicating things, DES was also included in the formulations of some prenatal vitamins, meaning individuals were exposed without actually having had DES specifically prescribed.
Unfortunately, those trying to confirm exposure have found that medical records going back to the mid twentieth century are now nearly impossible to obtain. We are left to examine our family’s health history to look for clues, such as, conditions for which DES was known to be prescribed and adverse reproductive health issues in the children and grandchildren that are associated with DES exposure.
Health Effects for DES Mothers
Breast Cancer – The breast cancer risk is approximately 30% higher (considered moderately higher) than for unexposed women. This should be taken into account when making decisions regarding hormone replacement therapy. If (and only if) absolutely necessary then only the lowest dose of HRT for the shortest length of time should be considered. This recommendation applies to all women, but especially for those exposed to DES. Additional recommendations for DES Mothers call for annual breast screenings, including clinical breast exams done by your health care provider.
Tell Your Children – Women who were given DES are urged to tell their children about it. DES is part of their children’s health history, which they should be aware of to make informed decisions and obtain health screenings they need. This difficult conversation should be held even if these children (now adults) have no health problems. Research on DES Daughters, DES Sons and now DES Grandchildren is ongoing and may reveal currently unknown health effects. If the offspring are not told of their potential risk, they cannot stay informed to protect their health.
For DES Mothers there is often a feeling of guilt – even though they were following doctor’s orders in hopes of having the healthy baby they so wanted. (We now know DES didn’t work, but mothers took their prescriptions in good faith).
DES Mothers are victims, just as their children are and many understand that intellectually – but often find it hard to reconcile emotionally. It’s tough shaking feelings of guilt, even though DES Mothers did nothing wrong. Also, they may find themselves anxious about medical problems for their children. Every new health issue linked to exposure can give rise to unfair self-blame and concern. Experience shows that keeping lines of communication open is helpful. Staying current on the latest DES findings and health screening recommendations can open discussions with family members.
Taking action can reduce feelings of helplessness and pain. That includes being vigilant in urging children to get proper medical care. Climbing on our soapbox now – joining DES Action is another step toward healing. Members get new information throughout the year and feel positive by supporting an organization actively pushing for continued DES research.