Health: Did Wyeth Give This Woman Cancer?

Wyeth — the maker of Prempro, a hormone replacement drug linked to breast cancer — had warnings on its labels. But its campaign to sell the drug may have sent a different message

Millrood saw the report. He did the math: “It didn’t take me long to figure out that with the millions and millions of prescriptions written, the number of women who could have suffered from breast cancer at the hands of Prempro could be staggering.” It took him one day to file the first lawsuit in the country against the drug. The papers picked up the filing. “Within three weeks,” Millrood remembers, “my office fielded 3,400 calls from women. These women weren’t fearful that they were going to develop breast cancer. Most already had it.” By the end of the year, he had nearly 500 cases.

Today there are almost 9,000 cases filed nationwide against Wyeth for Prempro — about 1,000 of them Millrood’s. In seven years, only a handful of them have been heard (more on that later). But in Philadelphia alone, nearly 1,500 trials — a new round of which got under way in mid-September — will ask thousands of Philly jurors to decide whether Wyeth is responsible for case after case of breast cancer in women who took its drug. Including that of Joy Henry, who is a former business owner, who is a widow and mother, who swallowed Prempro for eight years, and who eventually had her left breast removed along with her tumor.

IT WASN’T VERY long after the WHI study was published — immediately after her doctor found her breast cancer — that Joy Henry was taken off Prempro. Shortly thereafter, she had a mastectomy. “The pain was terrible, for four months almost unbearable,” she says. Six years later, “It still hurts.” She’s a mild woman, sharp but gentle, with a soft voice and a slow cadence that rises and falls as she describes how her husband (who died last winter) was as panicked — “devastated, really” — as she was about her diagnosis. Under a cloud of dark hair, her face doesn’t really look 75, but her body — fine-boned and delicate — has been ravaged by disease. She can’t drive long distances — the seatbelt is agonizing. She takes pills for the back pain caused by her change in posture. So roundly terrible was her recovery that she decided against a surgery to reconstruct her breast, even though “It’s depressing living with such major discomfort, and with my disfigured body. Depressing, disgusting, embarrassing.” Medical science can’t prove it, but Henry’s convinced it all started with Prempro.

In fact, much of Prempro’s own story begins where medical science left off — and social science took over. What started in 1942 as an estrogen pill designed to treat the hot flashes and vaginal discomfort that make life hellish for some menopausal women blossomed into a full-fledged cultural phenomenon, complete with celebrity endorsements.

By the mid-1970s, millions of women were prescribed Wyeth’s estrogen drug, Premarin, each year. About half of all menopausal American women were using hormone replacement therapy; its popularity increased until 1975, when the estrogen in Premarin was shown to drastically increase the risk of endometrial cancer. Sales fell, hard. Two decades later, the company unveiled Prempro, which added the hormone progestin (a synthetic version of the body’s natural progesterone) to Premarin to ward off endometrial cancer; the FDA approved it in late 1994. But there was a condition — a post-marketing study would have to assess breast cancer risk, which, even after testing, was still an X factor. Prempro remained on the market for seven profitable years, right up until WHI revealed its disturbing news in 2002.