I’ll never forget the conversation. Looking back, I can play it out in my mind, crystal clear. I was standing in Target, browsing the workout clothes, and filling in my friend about the conversation I had with my plastic surgeon. I had two options after my mastectomy. I could get expanders and eventually exchange those for breast implants, or I could go straight to breast implants. I wasn’t sure what to do.
My friend asked me if I’d considered not getting implants at all. I was stunned. I was only thirty-five years old. Going from a natural C-cup to flat was unfathomable. She went on to explain that she had done some research on breast implants, and there was a large group of women who were sharing their negative breast implants experiences online. Perhaps I should research the potential dangers of breast implants before committing to getting them?
I was in a breast cancer haze. Just a few weeks before, I had been diagnosed with stage 0 breast cancer. I spent days either completely disassociated from my real life or sobbing. How could I, someone without a family history of breast cancer and someone who ate healthy and exercised, have breast cancer in her thirties? It was entirely unfair and surreal. I felt like the cliché, that I’d had a rug pulled out from underneath me.
What followed was a sequence of events that I sometimes struggle to recall. I was assigned a breast surgeon at one of the top facilities in St. Louis. After I met with her, I had an MRI. Luckily, that scan looked good — no cancer anywhere else. Then I had to do the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genetic testing and await those results. In the meantime, my doctor presented me with two options. I could have a lumpectomy and six weeks of radiation, or I could choose a bilateral mastectomy. After making a pros and cons list and a whole lot of prayer, I decided to have the mastectomy.
Next up, I visited a plastic surgeon. I was once again offered two options. I could have tissue expanders placed during my mastectomy surgery, which would be gradually filled over the course of several months, and then those expanders would be replaced with implants in a separate surgery. My other option was to have implants placed at the time of my mastectomy.
The reason for me calling my friend, who is a registered nurse, was to figure out which of the two options sounded smarter. I was shocked when she gently suggested that I had third option. I didn’t have to get breast implants at all — ever. I could choose to go flat and then wear prosthetics if I wanted. I gave her suggestion about five seconds before outright rejecting it. I was certain that I was too young to go flat. That’s something I could do when I was older, in my sixties or seventies, when I simply would no longer care about breasts. But not now.
I ended up going direct-to-implant just a few weeks later. I went into the operating room with my own breasts and came out with “foobs” as we often call them in the breast cancer community. Foobs stands for fake boobs. The first thing I remember when I woke up was being in excruciating shoulder blade pain. I figured it was the positioning during the three-hour surgery. I was given a strong anti-inflammatory plus a muscle relaxer, and the next day, I was sent home to being the long recovery.
The shoulder pain dulled but never went away. I went through two rounds of physical therapy, many chiropractic adjustments, and even forked over a few thousand dollars for an MRI. The MRI showed absolutely nothing wrong. I decided to take up more yoga and weight training — to no avail.
This went on for years, followed by other (seemingly unrelated) symptoms. I was having lower abdominal pain. Eventually, I had another scan, this time a CT, which showed a whole lot of constipation. I found this odd, considering how much I exercised and our commitment to eating lots of fruits and veggies.
In the months that followed, I got sick and sicker. It seemed like every day, I experienced a new symptom of an unknown, undiagnosable illness. I had heart palpitations, dizzy spells, and cystic acne breakouts. Suddenly, I had food intolerances to foods I used to enjoy, including strawberries, popcorn, and wine. My anxiety skyrocketed, including panic attacks. I had aches and pains in places I didn’t know existed.
I had survived breast cancer, only to feel as if I were at least eighty years old. I was so exhausted all of the time. I had terrible brain fog, forgetting what I was talking about mid-sentence. I would lose things and lose track of what I was doing mid-action. When I would talk, I’d often use the wrong word or fail to think of the word I wanted to say. It was downright embarrassing. I also felt like a zombie. It didn’t matter how much sleep I got. I had no energy.
I’ve never been person who has struggled with depression, but I felt depressed during this time. I spent time going from doctor to doctor, having multiple blood draws and scans, with no resolution. I felt as if I were going crazy, but I was already on the roller coaster with no way of getting off. I was doomed to fail.
One morning, I woke up and got into a Facebook group that focuses on breast implant illness, or BII. As soon as the admin allowed me to enter the group, I spent hours reading posts from sick women, all of whom, like me had (or previously had) implants. I knew within a few minutes of being in the group that I had BII. The next step was to get my implants out.
Just like that, I knew I had to “go flat.” My implants, as perfectly placed as they were, weren’t worth my physical and mental health. I learned so much from that group (and still do). BII isn’t that uncommon, despite what the breast implant manufacturers convey. Here’s what was amazing. Most of the women who chose to explant — that’s have their implants and surrounding scar tissue removed — saw immediate and drastic improvement in their symptoms. In essence, they were healing and getting their lives back.
My explant surgery was delayed due to COVID. Every day, I woke up miserable but hopeful. I knew my day of feeling better was coming. Finally, five months after I decided to explant, I had surgery. Like many of the women I’d talked to, I woke up feeling instant relief.
I’m almost six months post surgery, and thankfully twenty-five of my twenty-nine BII symptoms are gone. I try not to live with regrets, because what good does it do? However, I absolutely regret not going flat from the beginning. I didn’t listen to my friend, and I feel like I lost over three years of my life because of it. My regret is why I’m so vocal now about BII and the very real dangers that breast implants pose. I don’t want another person experiencing the same loss that I, and thousands of others, did.