OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) – When she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2015, Alberta Pilliod never thought she would live to celebrate her 75th birthday with her family.
“The doctor gave me 18 months to live at most,” she said. But nearly four years later, having just celebrated her birthday Wednesday with her husband and son, she took the stand in an Oakland courtroom to testify about Roundup, the ubiquitous weedkiller that she believes gave her cancer.
Pilliod, who is suing Monsanto alongside her husband Alva, is the third plaintiff to go to trial over claims that the company knew Roundup could cause cancer and deliberately failed to warn consumers.
In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an arm of the World Health Organization, classified glyphosate, the main chemical compound in Roundup, a probable human carcinogen, prompting a wave of lawsuits against Monsanto in the United States. Other regulators worldwide have deemed the chemical safe, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Her symptoms began with vertigo. It was the spring of 2015 and Alberta and her granddaughter were getting ready for a trip to Hawaii, but she felt very strange.
“I had trouble keeping my balance,” she told the jury on Thursday.
Alberta went to the doctor, who was concerned it was more than just dizziness and recommended further tests. But Alberta wanted to see her son in Maui, so she decided to postpone the tests until her return.
“It was probably a mistake because flying was difficult,” Alberta said. “Hawaii was just no fun. I did not do well on that trip. On the way home I felt worse, if that was possible.”
The day after she returned to California, Alberta went to see a doctor at Stanford. A brain scan revealed lesions. She had diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, the most common type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Alberta said she was devastated. Just four years earlier, her husband Alva had been diagnosed with the same cancer in his spine and hip. He has been in remission since undergoing aggressive chemotherapy that has impaired function.
Alberta is in remission too, having undergone one relapse in 2016.
Though Alberta remained stoic, Alva broke down on the stand when he talked about Alberta’s cancer, and how one day he called the hospital and was led to believe she had died. A nurse told him she couldn’t be revived the night before and was moved.
“I thought she meant the morgue,” Alva said, trying to stifle a sob. He saw Alberta later that day. “She didn’t have a hair on her head. She was just staring at nothing. She didn’t know who I was,” Alva said.
She still isn’t the same.
“She gets weaker by the day,” Alva said. He apologized for his tears.
Alberta now struggles with depression. Before the cancer, Alberta, a retired teacher and vice-principal, used to work part time as an administrator to make some travel money. Now, she can barely make the bed in the morning.
Her cancer, which left her with scar tissue on her brain, also impaired her cognitive abilities and motor function. She suffers from hearing loss, double vision and dizziness.
“It’s kind of embarrassing the way I walk now. I wobble all over,” she said. “I’m dizzy all the time. I fall a lot.”
Alberta estimates that she and Alva used a gallon of Roundup a week on four residential properties over the course of 30 years.
“If anything I underestimated the amount we used because I wanted to be honest, but I felt like we used more,” she said.
She said neither of them wore protective clothing or face shields. Alberta typically sprayed in a tank top, shorts and sandals. She also didn’t wash her hands after spraying.
Her attorney Michael Miller asked her why.
“I really thought it was safe. I told my husband it was like sugar water,” she said.
Alberta explained that she had relied on various TV ads showing suburban dads spraying Roundup in shorts.
“The ads made me feel like it was safe,” she said.
Alva, who stopped using Roundup in 2016, said he tried to figure out why two people would get the same cancer within four years of each other. He went on the internet. He went to the library. He consulted his neighbor, a scientist. He had the paint in his house tested for lead. Finally, he came across an article about Roundup. He learned that several countries had banned glyphosate, including France and the Netherlands.
“I read articles about non-Hodgkin lymphoma and found a common denominator. It was the weed killer we were using. I was quite worried about it,” Alva said. He went home and took all the Roundup he could find to the hazardous waste dump.
Alva’s attorney Brent Wisner asked him if he ever would have used Roundup if he had known about its potential carcinogenicity.
“I wouldn’t have had it on my property,” Alva said. “I wouldn’t want it near me or my family.”