I have heard that some women who were pregnant between 1938 and 1971 were given a drug called DES to prevent miscarriages that is now known to cause cancers. Would I be affected if my mother took this drug?

The synthetic (or man-made) estrogen, diethylstilbestrol or DES, was made in London in 1938. DES was used in the U.S. between 1938 and 1971 to prevent miscarriage (losing a pregnancy). Many women who had problems with earlier pregnancies were given DES because it was thought to be both safe and effective. Over time, it was found that not only did DES not prevent miscarriage, it also caused cancers of the vagina (birth canal) and cervix (opening to the uterus or womb).

While many women were given DES over this time, many mothers do not remember what they were given by their health care providers when they were pregnant. Some prescription prenatal vitamins also contained DES. If your mother is not sure whether she took DES, you can talk with the health care provider she went to when she was pregnant with you or contact the hospital for a copy of her medical records.

DES can affect both the pregnant woman and the child (both daughters and sons). Daughters born to women who took DES are more at risk for cancer of the vagina and cervix. Sons born to women who took DES are more at risk for non-cancerous growths on the testicles and underdeveloped testicles. Women who took DES may have a higher risk for breast cancer.

If you think or know that your mother took DES when she was pregnant with you, talk with your health care provider right away. Ask her or him about what types of tests you may need, how often they need to be done, and anything else you may need to do to make sure you don’t develop any problems.