A Little Drug Called DES

Thirty-eight years ago today, I sat at the back of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Erie, Pennsylvania, sobbing inconsolably, my dreams vanishing because of four little words.

There is no heartbeat.

Years before while in high school, I participated in the drama category of a Forensics Club, performing a speech from a book called A Raisin in the Sun. I began with a poem by Langston Hughes which goes like this.

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

Like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore-

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over

Like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

Like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

I had no idea ten years later, my dreams would explode. But on a cold morning in the last pew of a dark church on Easter, I found myself praying God would end my life.

I’d grown up at a time when most women wanted to get married and have children. I had married a man I truly loved, intending on filling our home with love. Then at a doctor’s office during my first pregnancy, I received those four little words that changed my life.

There is no heartbeat.

Suddenly, life lost all meaning.

After that first miscarriage when I was twenty-five, I learned my mother had taken a drug, Diethylstilbestrol, or DES, while she was pregnant with me. Forevermore, doctors and history books would refer to me as a DES baby. My children would be third-generation DES victims and my grandchildren fourth-generation. But back then, in that church, I didn’t care about anything other than having a baby.

Today, this Easter morning thirty-eight years later, I am out in California visiting my daughter, waiting for my sweet little granddaughter to wake up and scurry through the house in search of Easter eggs. I am one of the lucky ones. I didn’t develop cancer (yet—hopefully never). I bore three healthy children. So many DES babies never have kids. I’ve read about women who developed cervical cancer in their teen years, had fifteen miscarriages, bone loss, depression.

Before the 1970s, DES was given to women who had a hard time carrying babies full term, and occasionally, doctors prescribed this drug for morning sickness. What effects this had on the women who took the drug and their offspring is just now being examined and discussed.

A recent study of over 700 DES babies and their siblings revealed 85% of DES babies attempted suicide. (https://www.intechopen.com/books/psychopathology-an-international-and-interdisciplinary-perspective/evidence-for-link-between-mental-disorders-and-in-utero-exposure-to-synthetic-hormones-a-long-and-cr)

You would think that statistic would appall me, but it didn’t. I am in the fifteen percent of DES babies who never attempted suicide. Yet for years I condemned myself for my depression.

We never know the DNA of another person. Some of us suffer from depression. If you don’t yourself, count yourself lucky and don’t condemn those who do. Depression can be caused by hormones, environment, mental deprivation and abuse, or a little drug from back in the nineteenth century called DES.

If you or someone you know is a DES baby and suffering depression this Easter morning, please contact me at Cyndie@cyndiezahner.com. I’d like to hear your story.

Sometimes talking helps heal. Thanks for listening.



Cyndie “CJ” Zahner is a mother, grandmother, wife, author, and DES baby. She is currently writing her DES story in a memoir, The House that Loved. She is also accumulating stories of other DES children. If you have a story you would like to share, please send it to cyndie@cyndiezahner.com.

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