Decatur woman awarded $34.3 million; hormone therapy drugs linked to cancer

A Decatur woman was awarded $34.3 million dollars in compensatory and punitive damages Friday after a Philadelphia state court ruled that the hormone therapy drugs she was taking gave her breast cancer.

Over the course of 11 years, Donna Kendall took Wyeth’s Premarin and Prempro and Upjohn’s Provera, according to Pogust Millroodand Millrood, the lead law firm that represented Kendall in the case. The drugs are used to treat the symptoms of menopause and are still on the market. In November 2002, she was diagnosed with invasive ductal breast cancer. By December 2003, she had undergone two mastectomies and reconstruction surgery on both breasts, chemotherapy and radiation. The law firm said she is on a continuing anti-hormone treatment.

“Unfortunately, no amount of money will fairly compensate Donna Kendall for the suffering she has endured, but she is hopeful that the outcome today will help avoid what has happened to her from happening to other women in the future,” said Tobias Millrood of the Conshohocken, Pennsylvania law firm of Pogust Millroodand Millrood, in a statement.

Kendall said everything happened for her at once in 2002. She heard about the results of the NIH study. Shortly thereafter, at 59 years old, she discovered that she had cancer.

“I didn’t know what I was getting into. But my first thought was that they have got to stop telling people that this is good for them,” Kendall said.

She said when she first started on hormone replacement therapy in 1991, the drug companies were promoting the drugs as more than just a way to relieve the symptoms of menopause.

“They said it was going to be good for Alzheimer’s, good for your teeth, good for your heart, colorectal cancer,” she said.

She said other friends of hers who were on hormone replacement drugs have also been diagnosed with cancer.
“I really couldn’t tell you why I’m still here. God must want me here,” she said. “…I’m from Central Illinois. I’m not the big city girl or the person in the spotlight. I worked in a grocery store, a common everyday person.”

Pfizer, which owns Wyeth and Upjohn, said in a statement that it will challenge the Kendall verdict, as well as a similar verdict also reached in the same Philadelphia court.

“We are disappointed with the verdicts in these cases. … The company stands by its belief that its subsidiaries acted responsibly by providing proper and accurate warnings regarding the hormone therapy medicines’ risks,” said spokesman Chris Loder.

The company said it has prevailed in the “vast majority” of 34 hormone therapy cases that have been set for trial, via a combination of jury verdicts, judges’ rulings and plaintiffs’ dismissals. Of those 34 cases, four — including the two in Philadelphia — have led to plaintiffs’ verdicts that have not been set aside, Loder said.

Millrood said Kendall was taking .625 mg of estrogen and 2.5 mg of progesterone.

In 2002, The National Institutes of Health’s Women’s Health Initiative Study found in that the associated health risks of combination hormone therapy outweighed the benefits. The study was meant to last 12 years, but according to NIH, was stopped after five years because of the risks — increased risk of breast cancer, heart attack and stroke — associated with the drugs.

Currently, lower dosage options exist and many doctors are prescribing hormone replacement for shorter periods of time, said Millrood.

“We’re hopeful that today’s verdict and the messages that juries are sending Wyeth about the dangers of Prempro will show them that there is no real place for this drug in the dosages that she took,” said Millrood.

Tribune reporter Mike Hughlett contributed to this report.