There has been a lot of media coverage lately on breast implant illness and breast implant-associated anaplastic large cell lymphoma (BIA-ALCL). This is a type of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma or cancer of the immune system that has been linked to textured breast implants. Patients present with a late-occurring seroma or swelling in the breast pocket around the implant. Since breast augmentation surgery is still the most popular aesthetic procedure in the world, there are a lot of patients out there who are terrified at the thought that their breast implants may be making them sick. This fear is real, just and completely understandable. However, patients are often confused as to the facts. Part of the reason for this is that breast implant illness is an area, in general, where there is more unknown than known. Having said that, I wanted to take the time to discuss BIA-ALCL as well as what you can do to protect your health.
Patient Safety is Paramount
I take patient safety very seriously. As a doctor who took a Hippocratic oath to protect patients, it is literally part of my professional DNA. Whenever I perform a breast augmentation, part of my long-term follow-up care includes a yearly in-person visit. All breast augmentation patients have an annual date with me to check in. It allows me to monitor my patient’s health, changing and aging of her soft tissue as well as the health of the implant. So, the single greatest thing that you can do to protect yourself is to take advantage of these yearly follow-ups. Furthermore, if you feel:
• Confused by the media coverage on breast implant illness
• That something has changed with your breast implant
• Pain in or around your breast
Make an appointment to see your surgeon immediately. When caught early, BIA-ALCL is very treatable. So, don’t ever think that your concerns are too small. You know your body better than anyone. If something feels weird or “off”, get it checked out. It is always better to err on the side of caution in my book.
BIA-ALCL is Extremely Rare
Breast implants are literally the most studied medical device in history. However, BIA-ALCL is real. It is also extremely rare. According to the latest statistics from the FDA (February 2019), there have been 457 reported cases of BIA-ALCL — all of which involved textured implants. So, if you are someone who currently has textured implants, your risk of developing this form of cancer is somewhere between 1 in 3,000 and 1 in 30,000. Since the risk of developing an infection during surgery hovers around 1 in 100, this gives you a rough idea of just how rare BIA-ALCL actually is. However, no surgeon wants his or her patient to be that 1. And no patient wants to be that one either.
FDA & BIA-ALCL
The FDA is taking the BIA-ALCL risk extremely seriously. They recently convened a two-day advisory committee meeting to hear firsthand from:
• Patient advocacy groups
• Plastic surgeons
• Breast implant manufacturers
The goal of the meeting was to try to determine how and why certain patients develop breast implant illness and BIA-ALCL. Health Canada is also updating its safety review of breast implants. While many advocacy groups are calling for a ban on textured implants altogether, most plastic surgeons feel that this is going too far. Not only are there millions of women in this country with textured implants who experience no problems, but there is also still so much that is not known about breast implant illness and BIA-ALCL. The important thing, to me, is that these regulatory bodies are paying attention, asking questions and gathering information. Because knowledge is power.
What is Breast Implant Illness?
Breast implant illness is a general category for a myriad of issues that may, or may not, be caused by a woman’s breast implants. The most common symptoms that plastic surgeons, including myself, hear from potential breast implant illness patients are:
• Chronic fatigue
• Joint pain
• Fever and/or flu-like symptoms
• Hair loss
• Brain fog
• Dry eyes or mouth
These symptoms are theorized to be caused by an autoimmune reaction to the breast implant itself. However, this has not been shown to be true.
Let me state emphatically: breast implants are safe. This has been proven time and time again in countless studies. But they are a foreign device in your body. So, it is conceivable that some patients’ bodies may respond to this device as if it’s an intruder. My job is to help you look and feel like the best version of yourself. This is why, personally, I always take my patients at their word. If you feel as if your breast implants are making you sick then I will take them out. Period.
The important thing for any patient with breast implants is to have an open and honest dialogue with your plastic surgeon, and any other physicians that are part of your care team. Be assessed in person annually if you are feeling good, and immediately if you feel as if something is wrong. We are here to help. But we can only do that if you come in and see us. So, don’t be shy.