Awareness & Research

Ovarian Cancer Lawsuits Spark Asbestos-Contaminated Talc Research

Written By:
Aug. 31, 2020
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Written By: Michelle Whitmer,
August 31, 2020

September is National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. The disease is receiving more attention this year following multimillion-dollar verdicts awarded in talc lawsuits that sparked interest in ovarian cancer research.

As the fifth-leading cause of cancer deaths in women in the U.S., ovarian cancer receives substantial funding for research from the U.S. Department of Defense, but it pales in comparison to funding for breast cancer.

The department allocated $20 million to ovarian cancer research in 2019, while breast cancer received $150 million. This funding is part of an initiative through the Office of Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs, which aims to fill research funding gaps.

Following recent lawsuits involving ovarian cancer plaintiffs, the department increased allocations for its Ovarian Cancer Research Program to $35 million, a 75% increase from the year before.

Big Verdicts Draw Attention to Asbestos in Talc

The lawsuits have primarily involved plaintiffs claiming they developed ovarian cancer after years of exposure to asbestos-contaminated talcum powder products. Defendants in these cases have included well-known companies such as Johnson & Johnson and Colgate-Palmolive.

Courts have issued big verdicts in these cases, including ordering Johnson & Johnson to pay $4.69 billion to 22 women in July 2018. It is the largest verdict ever awarded in a talcum powder lawsuit.

The verdict was reduced to $2.12 billion in June 2020, a month after the company announced it would stop sales of its talc-based Johnson’s Baby Powder in the U.S. and Canada.

Johnson & Johnson is facing 19,000 additional lawsuits over its famous talcum powder products.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer announced in 2009 that enough evidence exists to confirm that exposure to asbestos causes ovarian cancer. It also confirmed that asbestos-contaminated talc causes ovarian cancer and mesothelioma.

In 2010, the agency classified the perineal (genital) use of talcum powder that doesn’t contain asbestos as possibly carcinogenic to humans.

New research on talc and ovarian cancer has found talc and asbestos fibers in ovarian tumors that match fibers found in talcum powder products.

New Research on Talc and Ovarian Cancer

In February 2020, a study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine analyzed the tumors of 10 ovarian cancer patients who claimed they used Johnson & Johnson’s talcum powder products.

Researchers discovered talc and asbestos fibers in the patients’ tumors that perfectly matched the talc and asbestos fibers found in J&J’s talcum powder products, including Johnson’s Baby Powder, Shower to Shower and Shower to Shower Shimmer Effects.

Talc was found in all 10 of the patients’ tumors and tremolite and/or anthophyllite asbestos was found in eight tumors. Tremolite and anthophyllite are amphibole forms of asbestos that are considered highly carcinogenic.

In 1949, a case report of a woman diagnosed with both asbestosis and ovarian cancer was the first to suggest that asbestos exposure could cause both of these diseases in a single patient.

An ovarian cancer survivor was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2014, just two years after her first cancer went into remission.

Woman Diagnosed with Ovarian Cancer and Mesothelioma

Denise LeMire was just 45 years old when she was diagnosed with late-stage ovarian cancer in 2012. She underwent surgery and chemotherapy, which put the cancer into remission. Two years later, she was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma when a follow-up PET scan identified new cancer growth.

LeMire’s father worked with asbestos products and died of mesothelioma. When testing revealed the asbestos-related cancer, she believed secondary asbestos exposure was the underlying cause of both her cancer diagnoses.

LeMire was treated again with a different type of surgery and chemotherapy for mesothelioma and the cancer went into remission.

She had to give up her career as a nurse, but now she helps other cancer patients cope by sharing resources and tips on a Facebook page she created with her daughter, who is also a two-time cancer survivor.

Both mesothelioma and ovarian cancer are considered “silent killers” because these cancers don’t cause symptoms until they’ve progressed into late stages of development.

There are no early detection tests for these cancers, but researchers are working on developing tests for biomarkers that may lead to early diagnosis.

  • Signs of mesothelioma include chest pain, difficult breathing, wheezing and fatigue.
  • Signs of ovarian cancer include bloating, pelvic or abdominal pain, feeling full quickly and urinary issues.

Until better detection methods become available, anyone with a history of talc use or asbestos exposure should tell their doctor about their exposure history and monitor their health for symptoms of these cancers.