When I visited Krystal Kim, 53, at her apartment in the Roxborough section of Philadelphia, she had just gotten back from a doctor’s visit.
Her second bout of ovarian cancer is in remission, but doctors are still monitoring her closely. She found out she had ovarian cancer back in 2014, an ordeal that began as a personally numbing diagnosis, and transformed into a high-profile legal battle.
On Wednesday, a circuit court judge in Missouri made a ruling that means Kim may soon find some closure.
Kim was one of 22 plaintiffs with ovarian cancer who sued Johnson & Johnson over the summer, claiming that asbestos in the company’s talcum powder products caused their cancer. A St. Louis jury ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $4.6 billion in punitive damages — plus $550 million in compensatory damages — to the women.
Johnson & Johnson had filed a post-trial motion to appeal, which the judge denied Wednesday. The company still maintains it does not use asbestos in any of its products, and it still plans to appeal.
Kim, who has been in remission for two years, lives in a small apartment with her two adult sons and their dog, Pepsi. She works part time as an airline booking agent. Her sons, in addition to working and going to school, went to the trial in Missouri with her, where everyone joked they were like her bodyguards. Kim’s youngest, Bryce, was there when she got her original cancer diagnosis.
“That’s when I say he lost his innocence,” Kim said. “Because he went from being my little baby to being my caretaker — part of my care team.”
The family recently downsized their home, and Kim said the costs, energy and time spent on the legal battle over the years has meant she and her sons have had to live in transition for a while now.
Kim was first diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2014 when she was undergoing minor surgery. She said her doctor noticed something suspicious and tested for cancer.
“That’s when they brought in the oncology surgeon, and he said, ‘She’s a mess, it’s everywhere,’” Kim recalled. She said she had no symptoms, no bloating. She worked out at the gym every day and felt fine.
“That’s why it’s known as the silent killer,” she said.
Kim said she was confident her mother used talcum powder on her as a baby, but the first time she remembered applying it herself was when she was 10, growing up in Teaneck, New Jersey, and playing on a baseball team.
“I was one of the first girls that they let play baseball co-ed, and my mom she told me, ‘Make sure that you stay clean’ — she had a nose like a bloodhound,” Kim said. “She said, ‘You can’t be the stinky cute girl, you’ve got to be fresh and clean.’ So it was just something I always did.”
The lawyers come calling
Kim went through six rounds of chemo. She went into remission, and her cancer came back. She had her uterus removed, along with parts of her colon and intestines. At some point, she thinks she filled out a survey on social media saying that, yes, she had ovarian cancer, and, yes, she had used baby powder since she was young.
A couple of lawyers got in touch with her and came to meet her. They sent her to a doctor in Boston who she said tested her lymph nodes for asbestos and found evidence of it there.
“And that’s when I just broke down and cried, cause I’m like, ‘Asbestos? Where’d that come from?’”
Soon, she was preparing to go to trial in St. Louis with 21 other women, all of whom had had ovarian cancer. Kim dubbed them “Tenacious 22.”
Their suit said Johnson & Johnson did not properly notify them of the dangers of asbestos, which their lawyers said they could prove was present in the talcum powder.
Much of the trial was a debate over whose science was more sound. Johnson & Johnson still maintains there is no asbestos — and never has been — in the company’s products.
Lawyers for the women said the company used tests that weren’t sensitive enough to detect the substance.
Kim remembers the moment she thought had sealed the deal for the jury: In closing arguments, a Johnson & Johnson lawyer shook a bottle of baby powder for emphasis, releasing a plume of white dust. He ducked out of its way.
“So when he squeezed it, he did like, the swerve, and when the jury saw that, they were like, ‘He didn’t even want to be near it!’”
‘A sense of vindication’
Last week, reports from Reuters and the New York Times cited internal documents from over the years that reveal Johnson & Johnson had been worried about the presence and effects of asbestos all along. Kim said much of what was covered in the articles, she already knew — it was evidence presented during the trial that won her case.
“But having it come out — that gave me a sense of vindication,” she said. “Now you’re exposed, you can’t hide this any longer. And now everyone’s gonna know, because a lot of people were like, ‘No, not Johnson & Johnson, they’re the family company — they’re for babies.’”
Kim said she had been loyal to the brand, and it was hard for her to believe they were denying her claims and those of her fellow plaintiffs, despite what she saw as clear evidence.
“I just want them to admit that they are wrong. It’s just like a kid that won’t say ‘I did it, I’m sorry.’”
She said she expected a major conglomerate to take some ownership, to at least put warning labels on the products so that consumers could make decisions for themselves.
“Be a little more sensitive,” she said. “You’re marketing this to babies. So act like it.”
A member of WHYY’s board of directors is a high-level executive at Johnson & Johnson.
Editor’s Note: This version includes revisions and additions about the Kim family that update the original posted on Thursday, December 20.