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Glenn Nichols, surrounded by his hospice team. The author is in yellow.

Genetic Linkage

I'm a DES Daughter

June 6, 2011

Tags: DES, endocrine disrupter, diethylstilbestrol, bioethics, genetic counseling, pregnancy, adenosis, AIDS, direct-to-consumer genetic testing, feminism, CareNet Medical Group, paternalism, ob/gyn, ACOG

Early June marks the 30th anniversary of the reporting of the first AIDS cases, but it’s also an older medical anniversary – recognition that the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES) derailed development of the reproductive systems of a huge cohort of fetuses. I was one.

My mom, like millions of others, was handed “a vitamin” while pregnant with me in 1954, which in those days of medical paternalism, she never questioned. And so when I became a teenager, I began to drip, and was hauled off to the gyno. The verdict: Adenosis. The label: DES daughter. It was scary.

As an endocrine disrupter before the term was coined, DES, among other things, played havoc with the boundaries between tissues of the cervix, which prevented glands from vanishing on schedule. With the hormonal onslaught of adolescence, the errant glands went into overdrive. Fortunately, I didn’t have the otherwise rare cancer whose sudden appearance led to identifying the problem, as with AIDS. I also escaped the trademark DES small uterus, and my husband, a DES son, escaped XY-related problems. But my mom did die of breast cancer – another legacy of the “vitamin” thought to protect against pregnancy loss. And so far the DES Follow-up Study on the third generation – my three daughters – has revealed only a slight increase in ovarian cancer risk that is likely a statistical fluke awaiting larger numbers.

Pregnancy paternalism took years to dissipate. In 1981, my ob clearly knew something was amiss, but he said nothing. And so we were shocked at the on-time birth of daughter #1, who weighed less than the scraggliest chicken at the supermarket.

Then in the middle '80s I began providing genetic counseling at CareNet Medical Group in Schenectady, NY, founded by a wonderful ob/gyn, Hong Kyu Cheon, whose mother had been a midwife in Korea. When he retired, he handed the practice over to his daughter and daughter-in-law. Today CareNet is run by women. It's not that an XY ob/gyn can't be competent or caring, but there is something comforting, given what happened to my mother, about a woman-run practice.

And how things have changed! Patients now come into doctors offices already very informed, even naming specific drugs thanks to all the TV ads. My genetic counseling patients come armed with printouts describing their risks and possible tests, and sometimes even direct-to-consumer genetic test results. It is hard to imagine my mother's time, when she was expected to happily take anything the white-coated authority figure handed out.

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