- REUTERS/Jorge Silva
- Two women are suing breast implant manufacturer Allergan, saying they wouldn’t have gotten Allergan Biocell implants if they knew the devices were linked to a rare form of cancer.
- As of September 2018, the FDA had received 457 unique reports of BIA-ALCL, including nine deaths “which may be attributable” to the cancer, according to a letter the FDA wrote to healthcare providers.
- Some people have complained that breast implants have caused them to feel sick, and certain doctors believe their symptoms are part of an unstudied “breast implant illness.”
- According to cosmetic surgeon Jae Chun, MD, there is no existing test for breast implant illness, but anecdotal evidence suggests removing the implants can relieve symptoms like nausea, inflammation, and pain.
In July, Allergan voluntarily recalled the mplants at the recommendation of The Food and Drug Administration, which found this specific type of implant is linked to a rare cancer called anaplastic large cell lymphoma, or BIA-ALCL.
In addition to ACLC, breast implant patients have speculated for years that the devices could be causing a cluster of symptoms often referred to as “breast implant illness.” Instances of this mysterious illness have only been self-reported since no tests currently exist for it, cosmetic surgeon Jae Chun, MD, told INSIDER.
However, anecdotal evidence from women saying that their implants caused them pain, inflammation, and nausea for years – and that the symptoms went away upon implant removal – suggest there may be something to the breast implant illness claims.
Breast implant illness can’t be diagnosed
Chun’s practice solely focuses on removing breast implants from women who have experienced issues with the devices, and he performs around 500 “explant” procedures annually. Chun said the vast majority of patients come into his office reporting symptoms like dry eyes, dry mouth, rashes, fatigue, and nausea after getting implants. They opt to get their implants removed in order to increase their quality of life.
The closest thing to a breast implant illness diagnosis is ruling out all other illnesses, according to Chun. “If you try all the treatments [for other potential causes] and they don’t get better, you wonder if they’re being caused by the implants and therefore breast implant illness,” he said.
“I believe it’s your body reacting to the silicone, but not like it’s a poison or toxin. It’s like penicillin. A certain percentage [of people] just can’t tolerate those materials because their body can’t take them,” he said.
The body’s inflammatory response could be a sign it’s trying to get the implant out, as the silicone outer shell material isn’t biodegradable, Chun said.
Doctors are beginning to realize inflammation in one area of the body can create systemic health problems. For example, gum inflammation in the mouth can potentially contribute to cardiovascular disease.
Chun believes a similar theory might hold for breast implants. Based on his anecdotal experiences, implant removals result in decreased inflammation and patients feeling as if they finally got their lives back to normal after years of trying various treatments.
“Eventually someone is going to blow the whistle and say, ‘Hey, that’s not quackery.’ People having the [explant] surgery are the drivers. A lot of women testifying in front of FDA are my patients, ” he said.
Not all doctors believe breast implant illness is real
But not all doctors believe breast implant illness exists.
“There is no scientific research published in any credible medical journal that identifies a link between breast implants and any other generalized symptoms as described by some women online,” Daniel Maman, M.D., a board-certified plastic surgeon told Shape magazine. “There are more people walking around with breast implants than any other medical device, including cardiac pacemakers, so if ‘breast implant illness’ was a cause for concern, we’d know about it already.”
Even Chun isn’t entirely against breast implants.
“I’m not a manufacturer who says [implants] are the holy grail of artificial material and no one can have any problems ever, but I’m also not saying they’re poison and the devil’s instruments,” he said. Rather, different people have different reactions to the implants , and that is a reality everyone should be aware of when deciding whether they want breast augmentation surgery, he said.
Breast implants have been linked to a rare cancer
While breast implant illness is still under debate, the FDA has linked breast implants to ACLC, a rare type of lymphoma. In 2018 alone, 457 cases of ACLC were reported by women who had breast implants.
More specifically, the cancer has been linked to textured breast implants, and doctors believe their ridged design could act as a breeding ground for bacteria and infection. A few ACLC reports have been linked to smooth implants as well.
Clinical trials on breast implants and their potential risks have yet to be completed, so the exact link between the devices and cancer has yet to be determined. As more women come forward to the FDA about their experiences with implants, though, it could trigger the agency to launch more serious investigations into breast implants.
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