Some Breast Cancer Patients Are Lured Into Choosing Breast Implant Reconstruction By Their Doctors

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 

I am a decisive person. In the midst of my breast cancer fog—appointments, bloodwork, surgery scheduling, and researching all my test results—I didn’t pay enough attention to the fact that breast implants could be a terrible choice for me. I did have one friend, a registered nurse, tell me that perhaps I should dig deeper into breast implant illness. I blew her off, mostly because I’d faced major decision fatigue and couldn’t fathom, on top of everything, becoming a flattie at thirty-five years old.

My breast implants looked amazing. Seriously—like art. I even joked for months that I was going to be the hottest grandma in the retirement home. Everything else would be saggy and wrinkled, but my tits would be at full attention at all times. However, from the moment I woke up from having them put in to the moment I had them removed, I had shoulder and rib pain. Despite physical therapy, yoga, and chiropractic care—plus an MRI to check for any damage (there wasn’t any detected)—I was in agony all the time. I spent thousands of dollars and countless hours chasing a diagnosis for my pain, and soon, my sickness.

Three years after getting implants, I began to get quite sick, and sicker, with no definitive diagnosis. I had twenty-nine symptoms ranging from dry eyes, constant fatigue, joint pain and swelling, digestive issues, sudden and extreme food intolerances, and much more. I’m happy to report that after explanting — having my implants and the surrounding scar tissue removed —most of my symptoms have disappeared.

Dr. Kavita Jackson is an emergency room physician and a breast cancer survivor. She was presented with options for reconstruction—or to go flat—with all options presented equally. However, from talking to fellow survivors and fighters, she knows that not all women have had the same comprehensive experience. As a health care provider, she acknowledges that in any medical situation, “it is my obligation as a physician to present all available options. If one is a clearly superior option and my formal recommendation based on my expertise, I will say so and explain why.” She also shares, “I’m a big advocate for exploring the risks and benefits of each option through the lens of the patient to guide them in making the decision that is best for them.”

I don’t feel that I was pressured into choosing to get implants—but I do feel that because of my age at diagnosis (thirty-five), going flat (opting for no reconstruction) wasn’t discussed enough. I didn’t understand the potential dangers of implants—especially not as a patient who had an existing autoimmune disease. I have previously written that a person with an autoimmune disease should very seriously consider not getting implants, as their bodies are primed to reject them. My personal belief is that I had excellent medical care, doctors who truly saw me as a person and not just a patient, who perhaps felt that I was too young to forgo boobs forever. Implants via reconstruction is a popular decision, especially among breast cancer patients who are considered young.

Personally, I believe that despite how far we’ve come as a society, there’s still the belief that women without breasts are “less than” women. Implants are supposed to make us maintain our femininity despite all cancer stole from us. Unfortunately, implants are foreign objects in the body, made up of over forty chemicals, that have the potential to rupture, hide cancer in screenings, and make us very ill. Don’t believe me? Even the FDA has given breast implants a black box warning. We had mastectomies to regain our health, to help bid cancer goodbye, and with some of us, we only got worse once we got breast implants.

It turns out, I’m not alone in feeling like breast cancer patients, in our most vulnerable moments, are lured into getting breast implants. I touched based with several breast cancer survivors, fighters, and thrivers to ask what they have experienced. Were they fully informed when they made their surgical decisions? Did they feel they had options, or were they pressured into choosing reconstruction?

Kathy, a sixty-six year-old from Tennessee, was diagnosed with DCIS breast cancer in February of this year. Her first meeting was with a breast oncology nurse practitioner who told Kathy she would need to have a mastectomy. She touched on reconstruction, including implants, but didn’t mention the option of going flat. She then got Kathy scheduled with a breast and plastic surgeon. The plastic surgeon also didn’t discuss the option of going flat with Kathy.

In the meantime, Kathy did her own research on various popular breast cancer websites—none of which offered her information on choosing to not proceed with reconstruction. It was only through social media groups that she learned that she could go flat. Kathy told me, “Being diagnosed with breast cancer is life altering. There is a lot to absorb regarding the diagnosis, treatment, and surgery.” She feels that “doctors need to present all options equally and provide an all-inclusive packet with photos to help in our decision.”

Amy is a forty-six year-old living in Iowa. She was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer in May of 2020. She shared with me that her surgeon “assumed” she would have reconstruction and was “astonished” when Amy asked questions. The same happened during her appointment with the plastic surgeon. The plastic surgeon proceeded to tell Amy that “studies show that women who opt for reconstruction have better cancer outcomes because of less negative psychological issues around self and body image”—convincing Amy, at the time, that choosing reconstruction would be better for her “quality of life” and “perhaps survivorship.” She notes that her breast surgeon did tell Amy that reconstruction was often hated by patients. Because of complications and her timeline to start chemo, Amy ended up going flat. She shared with me that she feels surgeons often work “from the assumption” that reconstruction is ideal for younger patients.

Courtney is a twenty-eight year-old living in Australia who was diagnosed with DCIS (that’s stage 0 breast cancer) in 2019. She shares that “flat was only presented to me as a phase transitional thing rather than a reconstruction option.” It was only after losing weight and having a one-sided and then the other-side mastectomy that the surgeon suggested she stay flat. Now she feels, “I honestly wish I was given the option to go flat from the start.”

She’s been through a lot, including multiple surgeries with mismatched scars, but she is still pleased with her decision. She told me she feels “confident.” She felt immense pressure to choose reconstruction, that “everyone was more focused on rebuilding my body,” warning her if she didn’t, she’d be “unhappy and depressed.” However, her clapback? She says that she “loves herself more.”

Elizabeth was fifty-three when she was diagnosed with DCIS. She was “never presented with the option of going flat.” She says her surgeon “showed me a diagram that first showed mastectomy” and then “jumped to reconstruction options.” Elizabeth already had breast implants, and her plastic surgeon shared with her that her reconstruction, due to her current implants, “would be very easy.” Elizabeth also asked friends who urged her to reconstruct, telling her she was too young to go flat. Elizabeth proceeded with reconstruction, but reports fairly immediate issues, including capsular contracture in one breast and in the other, her implant flipped. Additionally, her right breast was higher than her left.

Elizabeth watched a TED Talk where Lacey Marie, the speaker, shared about breast implant illness. Elizabeth wondered if her symptoms were perhaps due to breast implant illness, and she chose to go flat. She shares that later, she spoke with her breast cancer surgeon’s nurse, who told her “that they purposefully avoid discussing flat as an option as it is too disturbing to the cancer patient.” Elizabeth’s response was that “the entire cancer deal is disturbing and having all info presented to us from the get-go is imperative, ethical, and necessary. We can handle it.”

I don’t share this information to throw our medical teams under the proverbial bus. Oncologists and surgeons are part of a team that saves us from our cancer. They are superheroes—and we need them, desperately. However, more and more women are coming forward, claiming that breast implants nearly destroyed them. They (we) deserve to be listened to. We have faced medical gaslighting, told our symptoms are in our heads—that perhaps we just need some anxiety or depression meditation, an anti-inflammatory, or therapy. Until we fix the root cause—by safely and completely removing our implants and surrounding tissue—we will not begin to heal.

Breast cancer patients deserve full disclosure. We also deserve to have all our treatment and reconstruction (or not) options presented fully and equally so we can make informed decisions. We should also be given time to make our choices. Had I taken a minute to dig deeper into the potential side effects of breast implants and considered the going flat may be the healthier choice, I wouldn’t have lost over three years of my life to sickness—especially after I had already dealt with cancer. Psychologically and physically, I’m significantly happier and healthier as a flattie—with my implants long gone. Peace out, so long, farewell to the toxic bags that tried to sabotage my life.

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