First HRT Award Comes Down: $1.5 Million

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • Breast cancer and HRT? Uh-oh, here we go again.

    That must be what the legal and financial folks at behemoth drug maker Wyeth are thinking, after a January 29 decision in which a state jury in Philadelphia ordered Wyeth to pay $1.5 million in compensatory damage, the result of a suit brought against the company by an Arkansas woman and her husband. The jury found Prempro, Wyeth's hormone replacement therapy (HRT) drug, responsible for the woman's breast cancer.

    It was just 10 years ago that Wyeth pulled a combination of diet drugs (Pondimin, Redux, and the generic phentermine–nicknamed “fen-phen”) from the market, after evidence linking the drugs with heart valve defects, as well as a fatal lung disease. Some 5.8 million people had taken the appetite suppressants, whose marketing logo was “no pain, no gain.”
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    A $3.75 billion class-action settlement closed the case for many former users, but 70,000 others chose to forego class action and go it alone. Wyeth has set aside $21.1 billion for litigation related to the drug combination; the largest verdict in the case thus far has been in excess of $1 billion, awarded to the family of a 41-year-old Texas woman who’d taken the drugs, and later died of lung disease.

    Now, it looks as though Wyeth may be headed down the same path with its HRT drugs. Millions of women took HRT drugs for years–-including Prempro–-to quell the debilitating side effects of menopause. But after the Women’s Health Initiative study (released in July, 2002) seemed to indicate that HRT increased breast cancer risk, millions stopped taking the drugs. And rates for the most common form of breast cancer dropped precipitously between August 2002 and December 2003: a drop of 15% in just 16 months, as reported last December at the highly regarded San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium.
    While doctors involved with the WHI study are hesitant to make a definitive claim that HRT causes breast cancer–though the evidence is compelling, the research continues–it appears juries aren’t feeling those same qualms. The January 29 $1.5 million verdict for the Arkansas couple represents the first case settled with an award; two others ended without a verdict. At present, 5,000 product liability lawsuits involving Wyeth’s hormone replacement drugs are in the courts, and the number is growing.

    My first reaction, on reading the news, was greed. “Wow, that’s a lot of money! How can I get in on that?!” This was quickly followed by disappointment (“Darn, I didn’t take HRT drugs”), and avarice (“How come those other women are getting a big payoff just because THEY took drugs before they got cancer? Breast cancer hit the rest of us just as hard!”) Thankfully, all three of those emotions were fleeting, passing through my head in the span of just about 10 seconds before they disappeared, replaced by sadness.

    Money is balm for a lot of worries; I long for the thus-far elusive day when I no longer worry about bouncing checks. But money doesn’t heal breast cancer. It can’t bring back the missing breast, nor stop the permanent painful side effects of treatment. It won’t heal the relationships that were battered by cancer, the friends who disappeared, the spouse who “couldn’t take it” and walked away.

  • Money won’t bring back our sisters who’ve died. In the end, money doesn’t bring happiness. But a cure for breast cancer would–for millions of women, their friends, their family. What if… Wyeth took the money stashed away for HRT litigation–potentially billions of dollars–and instead donated it to breast cancer research? Something to think about.
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Published On: February 01, 2007