Medical experiments on women’s pelvic goldmines have to stop. Women need to be in control of their bodies.
Pill that left a generation blighted by cancer: Women took it to prevent the agony of miscarriage, now their children are paying a terrible price
By John Naish
PUBLISHED: 18:24 EST, 12 March 2012
Heather Justice was just 25 when cervical cancer struck. To save her life, surgeons had to perform radical — and distressing — surgery to remove her womb and vagina, but unfortunately that wasn’t the end of her ordeal.
For Heather’s surgeon had been struck by the fact that hers was a particularly rare and aggressive type of cervical cancer only usually seen in post-menopausal women.
Further investigations led to the start of one of Britain’s longest-running and most shocking drug scandals. Heather, now 59, was the UK’s first confirmed case of DES-related injury.
DES, or diethylstilboestrol, was prescribed to pregnant women — including Heather’s mother Gladys — from the Fifties to the Seventies in the mistaken belief that it prevented miscarriage. Instead, it left behind a hidden legacy of damage to the foetus.
The drug is now making headlines in Britain because a leading American compensation lawyer, Aaron Levine, has announced that he plans to coordinate a UK-wide hunt for women like Heather Justice — ‘DES daughters’ — to launch a class-action claim.
Up to 300,000 Britons may have been exposed to the drug, but the vast majority will be unaware of this risk to their health. DES was discovered in 1938 by British researchers and developed as a cheap, super-strong form of the female hormone oestrogen.
It was given widely to women at risk of miscarrying, as it was thought to bolster their reproductive systems. But by the Fifties, studies showed DES did not improve the chance of a successful pregnancy. Then scientists found it could even be dangerous and might cause breast tumours.
However, GPs prescribed it until 1971, when the drug’s makers finally admitted it could have a profound impact on the health of those exposed to it in the womb — causing cancers and gynaecological abnormalities in women and testicular problems in men.
Heather’s mother, Gladys, was put on DES pills in the early Fifties because she had miscarried once, before becoming pregnant with Heather. No one thought any more of it until Heather was 25. She had just given birth to her second son and had a routine smear test.
‘They found something suspicious,’ she remembers. ‘Doctors did more tests and found I had a form of cervical cancer normally only seen in post-menopausal women.’