Health & wellness

Judge rules DES-breast cancer case can move forward

A federal judge in Boston ruled yesterday, in a victory for 53 breast cancer patients, that their class action suit against the makers of diethylstilbestrol (DES) should not be dismissed but should be settled by mediation between the parties. The women allege that their exposure while in the womb to DES, which their mothers took more than 40 years ago to prevent miscarriages, led to their diagnoses of developing breast cancer.

“Doctors need to know to give adequate care and ask the right questions to assess breast cancer risk in their patients; being a DES daughter is a big one,” said Caitlin McCarthy, a DES educator and activist who isn’t involved in the lawsuit. (Read more about McCarthy’s experience as a DES daughter.)

In her ruling, US District Judge Marianne Bowler acknowledged that breast cancer is “not a rare disease” and that women exposed to DES developed breast cancer at the age at which it would be expected, typically over 50. That’s unlike the rare vaginal cancers that were found 40 years ago to occur far more commonly than expected and at far younger ages in DES daughters.

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But, she added, there’s been an “observed association” between breast cancer and in utero exposure to DES in a number of “relevant published studies” that suggest a causal link.

The 14 drug companies named in the suit have not said whether they will appeal the judge’s ruling. Bowler wrote in her decision that the “plaintiffs still face an uphill battle.”

Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.