The four sisters are now suing a former maker of DES, or diethylstilbestrol, in a case set to unfold in federal court on Friday, when it will become one of the first of scores of such claims around the U.S. to go to trial. The Melnick women are seeking unspecified damages.
The numerous pharmaceutical companies that made or marketed the drug argue that no firm link has been established between breast cancer and DES, a synthetic estrogen that was prescribed to millions of women from the late 1930s to the early 1970s to prevent miscarriage, premature births and other problems.
It was eventually pulled from the market after being linked to a rare vaginal cancer in women whose mothers used DES. And studies showed the drug did not prevent miscarriages after all.
All four Melnick sisters had miscarriages, fertility problems or other reproductive tract problems long suspected of being caused by prenatal exposure to DES. Then in 2008, one of the sisters read about a study reporting an increased incidence of breast cancer in the daughters of women who took DES during pregnancy.
''That's when we really started to say, 'Wow, there really could be a link. It's not just in our head,''' said Donna Melnick McNeely, a special education assistant from Las Cruces, N.M., who was diagnosed with breast cancer at 49.
The sisters, who grew up in Tresckow, Pa., say they have compelling anecdotal evidence within their family: Their mother took DES while pregnant with Donna, Michele, Andrea and Francine. All had reproductive problems and developed breast cancer in their 40s. But their mother did not take DES while pregnant with the oldest sister, Mary Ann. She did not have fertility issues and has not had breast cancer.