What Are the Side-Effects of Breast Implants? Doctors and Patients Weigh In
Thinking about getting—or removing—breast implants? Here’s the latest take on the pros and cons.
What women who have (had) them say…
When Kirstin Turnbull was 24 years old, one of her friends got breast implants. An A cup herself, Turnbull, now 42, immediately wanted to know more; within weeks, she went in for surgery to have textured saline implants put in, at a cost of around $6,800.
Within two years, she was diagnosed with anxiety and depression. After giving birth eight years later, the Toronto native was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease—an autoimmune disease that affects the thyroid. By the time she turned 38, she had started going through menopause. Turnbull believes that these health issues were related to her implants. In 2017, she decided to have them removed. (Her friend, who had her implants replaced around 2010, has not had any complications and still has her implants to this day.)
“I can’t say that I have noticed any immediate changes in my health; however, I didn’t expect to have any right away,” says Turnbull, six months post-“explant” surgery. “I do sleep better at night—figuratively and literally—knowing that I made this decision.”
In 2005, Nicole Daruda received her cohesive gel implants and within two years had noticeable symptoms. In 2010, she left her job due to brain fog, and by 2012, she says, she was bedridden. Her symptoms included chronic fatigue, body aches and inflammation, thyroid issues, constant ringing in the ears, heart palpitations, digestive issues and sudden food allergies, to name a few. In January 2013, Daruda, who’s based on Vancouver Island, consulted a surgeon in Alberta. He told her that he’d had patients report similar symptoms stemming from implants and agreed to remove hers.
In 2005, Nicole Daruda received her cohesive gel implants and within two years had noticeable symptoms. In 2010, she left her job due to brain fog, and by 2012, she says, she was bedridden.
Before she went under, the surgeon asked her if she wanted to see her implants post-surgery. After noting that they smelled like a mix of acetone, urethane and formaldehyde (“They were very strong, noxious smells,” she says), Daruda decided to do some further research. She launched healingbreastimplantillness.com in 2013 and a Facebook group called Breast Implant Illness and Healing in 2015. Today, the group has more than 40,000 members, including Turnbull.
Another member, St. Louis, Mo., native Tracie Lunatto, 37, was 32 when she was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer. She went through four rounds of chemotherapy and had a double mastectomy. “Honestly, I wanted a mastectomy as soon as I heard ‘It’s cancer,’” says Lunatto. After surgery, two tissue expanders were placed under her skin to stretch the epidermis in preparation for implants. After recovering from some complications—one of her expanders was removed early due to an MRSA infection—Lunatto had textured silicone implants put in. She was pleased with her new breasts but still felt depressed. It had been a difficult year. First the diagnosis and then the gruelling treatment, and now she was grappling with lingering post-chemo side effects.
“I knew I’d always have chemo side effects, like short-term-memory loss, bone aches and nausea,” says Lunatto, but she was also experiencing headaches, ringing in her ears, food and temperature intolerances and constant nausea, and her face was puffy.
Fast-forward a year and Lunatto began to worry that her implants were not only exacerbating her post-treatment symptoms but also causing new problems. “I knew I’d always have chemo side effects, like short-term-memory loss, bone aches and nausea,” says Lunatto, but she was also experiencing headaches, ringing in her ears, food and temperature intolerances and constant nausea, and her face was puffy.
Within 24 hours of her explant surgery, the swelling, food issues and ringing in the ears disappeared. It has now been almost a year since her surgery, and she says the majority of her symptoms have waned or subsided to a degree where she is much more comfortable. Lunatto says she misses her breasts but adds that she “wouldn’t recommend implants to anyone.”
What doctors say…
There is limited research on the benefits of implant removal, but a study published in the journal Immunologic Research in July 2016 concluded that when people with silicone breast implants who’d experienced silicone-related complaints like fatigue, autoimmune disease and myalgia underwent explantation, 75 per cent of them saw improvements in their health.
“Extrapolating from U.S. data, an estimated 4,500 women had their implants removed in 2017 in Canada, which was a 4 per cent increase from 2016,” says Dr. Julie Khanna, a plastic surgeon based in Oakville, Ont. She adds, however, that she believes that most women have their implants removed for aesthetic reasons rather than health concerns. (Depending upon your provincial or territorial benefits, the surgery may or may not be covered.)
When people with silicone breast implants who’d experienced silicone-related complaints like fatigue, autoimmune disease and myalgia underwent explantation, 75 per cent of them saw improvements in their health.
Khanna says that women first started worrying about implants in 1992, after silicone implants were temporarily taken off the market due to the possible health concerns with which they were associated: autoimmune diseases like lupus, arthritis and scleroderma. Khanna says that today, however, there are multiple studies that show this isn’t the case. “At the time, we didn’t understand the rate of these autoimmune diseases in women in general,” she explains. “But now, when you compare groups with implants and without, there’s no difference.”
In 2017, Health Canada issued an alert about breast-implant-associated anaplastic large cell lymphoma (BIA-ALCL), noting that it occurs more frequently in women who have implants that have a textured surface than in women who have implants with a smooth surface. Research published in JAMA Oncology earlier this year found that approximately one in 7,000 women who get breast implants will develop this rare form of cancer.
According to the alert, Health Canada had received five confirmed cases of the cancer in Canada over the past 10 years, and as of September 2017, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stated that it had been made aware of 414 reports of BIA-ALCL. It’s not clear what causes this rare type of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma; however, some suspect that it develops as an immune response to the implants.
“At the time, we didn’t understand the rate of these autoimmune diseases in women in general,” she explains. “But now, when you compare groups with implants and without, there’s no difference.”
Dr. Pierre Blais has been researching medical implants (from breast to ophthalmic implants, as well as hip and knee replacement systems) and their side effects since the early 1970s. In 1990, he launched his own company, Innoval Failure Analysis. Based on his research, Blais says it’s not the breast implants themselves that cause the adverse effects. “Instead, it’s the body’s reaction to the tissue that forms around the implants and the accumulation of stagnant fluid at the implant site,” he explains.
According to Blais, the tissue starts to form within days of implantation but gradually dies after about five years. The decaying tissue by-products then seep into the body, causing inflammatory and immunological changes. “Breast implants impose a mortgage on the user’s health, which increases with the implant dwell time and age of the user,” he says.
“Breast implants impose a mortgage on the user’s health, which increases with the implant dwell time and age of the user.”
Blais notes that once implants are removed, it may take a “substantial period of time” for the symptoms to diminish, adding that in some cases, some remain. He also recommends that women be screened for lymphatic disturbances, especially if they have had the implants for a long time or have had multiple implants.