If You're Considering Getting Breast Implants, Know The Risks

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
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I chose to get breast implants when I was thirty-five after discovering I had breast cancer. Breast implants are a popular mastectomy reconstruction option. I felt I was too young not to have breasts, so I made my decision quickly. I was so focused on getting every cancer cell out of my body that I did little research on breast implants.

Three years later, I had my breast implants removed. The constant shoulder and rib pain, plus twenty-nine symptoms of breast implant illness, convinced me that faux boobs weren’t worth being sick and in agony all day, every day. It was only when I got ill with no answers from doctors and lab tests that I realized what the root cause was. Since my implant removal, most of my symptoms have resolved. Now you might be thinking that I’m only one person and you’ve heard in the media that breast implants are safe for the majority of women. Before you get breast implants, I implore you to do your research.

To help you out, I spoke with Dr. Manish Shah, a board-certified plastic surgeon in Denver, Colorado to get the nitty-gritty on breast implants.

I started by asking him who should absolutely not get breast implants? He shared that there are patients who are not “ideal candidates” for implants. If you smoke, you are at risk of “healing problems” and “complications during anesthesia.” There are also the patients with “unrealistic size goals,” patients with “uncontrolled diabetes,” and patients with “significant autoimmune disease or immunosuppression” who have additional risks. Dr. Shah says he will turn away anyone whom he feels isn’t a healthy candidate.

Even if you aren’t among the at-risk patients, you need to know that there are plenty of risks that come with getting breast implants. Dr. Shah says the American Society of Plastic Surgeons offers an extensive list to make sure patients are provided informed consent. However, he has a “frank discussion” with his patients regarding the risks. He shares that the risks include the following: “bleeding, infection, scarring, wound healing problems, numbness, change in sensation or function of the nipple areolar complex, difficulty with breastfeeding, difficulty with mammography, need for MRI, need for future surgery, dissatisfaction with the cosmetic outcome, need for revision surgery, implant complications (rippling, infection, capsular contracture, malposition, extrusion, loss of implant, reactions to medications or anesthesia, heart/lung/brain complications, and/or death.” I want to add to his list that breast implants can rupture. In the case of silicone implants, the silicone can then leak into the body.

Is your head spinning yet? Well, there’s more.

Recently, the Tribeca Film Festival debuted a docu-film called “Explant” in which Michelle Visage, whom you might know from Rupaul’s Drag Race, shares her journey of having her implants removed to help restore her health. In the documentary, Michelle talks to a group of women who share that they have breast implant illness. However, when they talked to their doctors, they were told it’s all in their heads, that they are “crazy.”

I asked Dr. Shah if a woman has implants and she believes she has a BII — which is a constellation of symptoms related to breast implants — what should she do? Dr. Shah says the patient should document their symptoms, and seek care from their primary doctor, asking for lab work including “inflammatory markers, complete blood count, allergy markers, markers for connective tissue diseases” and more. If she believes her breast implants are making her sick, she can approach a plastic surgeon to discuss removal.

However, I learned that BII isn’t an official medical diagnosis, making this journey difficult for both doctor and patient. A doctor can’t diagnose a patient with something that doesn’t officially exist. But despite the lack of a diagnosis code for BII, Dr. Shah says, “I think BII is a real phenomenon.” He adds, “Breast implants are foreign bodies. As such, the body will have some type of reaction to them.” He did say that the “vast majority” of his patients don’t have issues — however, this doesn’t mean that “some patients don’t suffer from their implants and just do better by removing them.” He is willing to remove implants at a patient’s request.

What I’ve learned from reading stories from thousands of women is that they were told by their surgeons that breast implants are “perfectly safe,” and they trusted their doctors to tell them the truth. However, when they seek to have their implants removed, their surgeons claim the patients must be sick with something else, that it cannot possibly be the implants.

Before you even think about venturing to see a plastic surgeon about getting breast implants, you need to ask yourself some important questions, posed to us by Dr. Shah. We need to question our autoimmune current or risk status. Breast implants are not forever devices — they must be removed or replaced at some point — so are you okay with having future breast surgeries? Mammograms can be difficult to have done and to have interpreted when the patient has implants — are you okay with this risk? Additionally, this may require you to pay out-of-pocket for MRIs (which are thousands of dollars per scan).

You may lose or have excess nipple sensation once you have implants; Dr. Shah suggests carefully examining if you’re okay with the changes in sexual pleasure post-implants. If you currently have neck or shoulder pain, these may increase once implants are placed due to the added weight. Having surgery and the subsequent recovery requires you to take time off work, sometimes longer depending on your job. You really can’t cheat on this, otherwise the implants can be displaced or you risk infection. For anyone who lifts weights, either recreationally or for their job, you need to consider how implants will impact that.

You see, getting breast implants isn’t as easy as you might think. Though I certainly understand any person wanting their breasts to look a certain way, as I did when I learned I had cancer, I found that the implant risks came to fruition in my own body. The shoulder and rib pain lasted the entire time I had implants, with no alleviation with physical therapy and chiropractic care. The BII symptoms lasted eleven (very long) months until I had the implants removed.

I wish I were alone in my woes, but the reality is, thousands of women are explanting every year. In 2018, almost 29,000 women explanted. They deserve to be heard and understood.

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