A few weeks before my mastectomy, a friend asked me if I’d considered going flat instead of having breast reconstruction. She’d read several women’s accounts of getting sick from their breast implants. I told her that I had no desire to research breast implant illness. I had made up my mind that, because it was possible, I was having my direct-to-implant mastectomy. This one-and-done surgery would help me get off the cancer train, come out with new-and-improved boobs, and get my life back on track.
Then a year ago, I started getting sicker and sicker. It started with joint pain and stiffness and progressed to temperature intolerance, food intolerances, sleep disturbance, dehydration, dry eyes, ear ringing, skin issues, waves of increased anxiety, and more. Then in late summer, I went to the ER with heart palpitations and left with a diagnosis: a pulmonary embolism. I am only 39 years old, exercise daily, and eat healthy — so why do I feel so sick all the time? Is it possible that I have breast implant illness?
My silicone breast implants look good, and despite not having much sensation in my chest, my implants have the feel of natural breasts. They fill out a swimsuit top or v-neck shirt nicely. However, the minute I emerged from surgery, I had shoulder pain that never went away — not with multiple rounds of physical therapy, massage, yoga, and chiropractic visits. An MRI revealed absolutely nothing.
I cannot say with certainty that every medical woe I’m experiencing is from my breast implants. The human body is complicated, and I have had my fair share of medical issues. I am a type 1 diabetic and a breast cancer survivor who was recently diagnosed with lupus. This journey has been a process of elimination, plus lots of trial and error. Trust me when I say, I didn’t want to be the person having her breast implants removed, and going flat-as-a-pancake, in her thirties. But here I am.
How can implants be the potential cause of so many problems if they are considered safe? There’s no test for breast implant illness, and — get this — breast implant illness is not even an official medical diagnosis. However, plenty of legitimate sources recognize that breast implants may cause serious problems in some patients, including MD Anderson Cancer Center, Harvard Health Publishing, and the National Center for Biotechnology Information. The reality is, BII hasn’t been studied much at all.
For answers, I reached out to Dr. Manish Shah, MD, FACS, and a board-certified plastic surgeon, as well as to Nicole Daruda. Nicole runs a large breast implant illness social media support group, as well as authors a BII information website.
One question many women with problematic implant symptoms struggle with is finding someone to believe them. I asked Dr. Shah, point-blank, if he thinks breast implant illness is real. He shared that “women are three times more likely to develop some type of autoimmune disease over their lifetimes than men. To me, this would indicate that women have more active or aggressive immune systems.” He added that breast implants are “housed in silicone rubber shells and filled with either silicone gel or saline. While silicone is considered to be the gold standard on which other implantable biomaterials are judged for biocompatibility, they are still inflammatory.”
BII, he notes, is “not an official diagnosis.” However, it’s entirely possible that “silicone or other chemicals” in implants may be “triggering an aggressive autoimmune response” and this shouldn’t “be considered far-fetched.” He notes that BII is “a constellation of reactive symptoms” and inflammatory reactions can be caused by many things. Therefore, it’s really important that women who suspect their implants are making them sick should absolutely see their general practitioner to look at the implants using imaging, as well as have labs done to see if there’s an underlying condition. If the patient wants their implants out, they should seek a board-certified plastic surgeon. If that doctor doesn’t believe the patient, “keep looking,” he said. He added that “a patient knows their own body best.”
His response is that, generally speaking, “breast implants are safe” and there are “millions of women” who have them and don’t have issues. However, he shared that if a patient with an autoimmune disease (think type 1 diabetes, lupus, etc.) seeks to get breast implants, he has a “frank conversation” with them about the “immune system risk.” Because breast implants are foreign objects, the woman’s immune system can “turn on” the implants and essentially reject them. He also says that anyone who gets implants should know that they can cause complications (rippling, flipping, infection, etc.), they can rupture, and they can have manufacturing defects. They are not lifetime devices, and choosing to get implants means choosing to have future surgeries — period. I appreciate Dr. Shah’s no-nonsense approach to my questions, and it was time to ask someone who had BII.
Nicole Daruda is the founder of Healing Breast Implant Illness and runs a 135,000 member BII Facebook group. She shares that most members aren’t medical professionals who give medical advice. Rather, the group is full of women, many of whom believe they’re experiencing or have experienced BII. Countless women come to Daruda’s group with an array of symptoms, curious if their implants are making them ill. Many come to realize that “they were perfectly healthy before breast implants,” and they “recognize breast implant illness in themselves” after reading other women’s accounts. The group members often refer to their implants as “toxic bags” and post pictures of themselves holding their removed breast implants.
You might be wondering what the symptoms of BII are. Daruda’s website offers a comprehensive list of more than fifty possible symptoms. Of course, the issue is that many of these can be symptoms of other diseases. Thus, it’s important to rule out other medical conditions, as Dr. Shah noted. However, a new diagnosis such as an autoimmune disease, after getting breast implants, could be indicative of the root cause being the implants. Symptoms of BII listed include fatigue, brain fog, muscle pain and weakness, insomnia, slow healing, headaches, bowel issues, infections, food intolerances, cold hands and feet, organ (liver, kidney, etc.) problems, mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, blood pressure issues, and many, many more.
Why are breast implants so problematic, in general? Daruda, who experienced BII herself, shares that silicone “is made of toxic chemicals and heavy metals, which chemicals are known endocrine disruptors, cytotoxic, neurotoxic, carcinogenic and inflammatory to tissues.” These silicone shells can bleed, leak, or rupture, and some women post photos of their implants, after removal, containing mold. She wants us to know that BII has nothing to do with “the brand or type” of implant, encouraging us to know that there’s no such thing as a safe breast implant. (Some women believe that only the FDA recalled breast implants, which have been related to a lymphoma risk, are potentially problematic.) The level of a person’s reaction to implants can depend on genetics, their immune system, and gut health, Daruda shares.
Many come to believe that they have BII, as evidenced in Daruda’s group, yet it’s not an official medical diagnosis. How do we combat this, when we find ourselves sick but not diagnosable — and often not believed? Daruda’s response is simple. We don’t need a diagnosis. The symptoms experienced are very real. Therefore, the next step is to find a doctor who can properly explant (remove the implants and capsules) and then get on the surgical schedule.
I have read hundreds of stories from people who believe they have or had BII. It’s not their words, but their photos, that have moved me the most. Members in Daruda’s group often post before-and-after photos using the same clothing, same lighting, and no makeup or filters. The difference between their before-explant and after-explant shots are nothing short of astounding. The bags under their eyes are gone, their hair is more full, and their skin glows. Of course, this is anecdotal evidence, but I choose to believe that each woman knows her body best and is sharing her truth to help others.
Some friends have asked me if I regret getting breast implants, and my answer is, I don’t know. I was in a cancer haze when I made the choice to get implants, and I really didn’t want to be breast-less at age 35. I certainly will have a grieving process when my faux-breasts are gone, but I refuse to live in a constant state of regret and self-hatred. I made my decision then, and now I’m changing my mind and moving forward. A literal weight will be lifted off my chest once my breast implants are gone and I pray it’s the healing I’ve been hoping for.
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