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Here’s What We Know About Breast Implants and This Rare Type of Cancer

Published Nov 30, 2018

Implants may be linked to higher risk of a certain type of lymphoma as well as other health problems.

A series of new stories are examining the potential health risks that both silicone- and saline-filled breast implants may carry. The most serious of these is the possibility of developing a type of blood cancer. What’s not yet clear is if the evidence is significant enough for the government to issue a warning.

The blood cancer that implants may cause, called Breast Implant-Associated Anaplastic Large Cell Lymphoma or BIA-ALCL, is a type of non-Hodgkins lymphoma that is not breast cancer. It is rare, and symptoms include pain, redness and swelling around the implant or breast area.

And while getting breast implants certainly does not definitively mean you’ll definitely get this type of lymphoma, it’s a dangerous illness for those who do get it. “ALCL is rare, but for those who get ALCL from their breast implants, it is very frightening and potentially fatal,” says Diana Zuckerman, PhD, President of the National Center for Health Research.

Here’s what we do know: The Food and Drug Administration—responsible for regulating medications and medical devices—has acknowledged that it has known of a potential relationship between breast implants and increased risk of ALCL since 2011. The risk involves both textured and smooth implants but the FDA’s position is that the textured kind may have a higher likelihood of causing the disease. The FDA also notes that incomplete or inefficient monitoring of, and reporting on, these health issues on a national level has meant that many women do not know all the facts when choosing to have implants for either cosmetic or reconstructive reasons.

According to the FDA, “In most cases, BIA-ALCL is found in the scar tissue and fluid near the implant, but in some cases, it can spread throughout the body. Precise risks are difficult to determine due to lack of information about how many patients have received breast implants in the US and worldwide.”

In an interview conducted prior to recent news, Dr. Andrea Pusic, Chief of Plastic Surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, told SurvivorNet that breast implants are generally considered safe—but they do require monitoring by a doctor. The FDA also states that breast implants are “not lifetime devices,” and that the longer a patient has them, the more likely they are to rupture or experience other complications.

 

With regards to the safety of implants, Dr. Darrick Antell, a private practice plastic surgeon in New York City, cites the rarity of these instances as part of the reason implants are not excessively dangerous. “Textured surface implants have rarely been noted to develop ALCL, at a rate of 1 in 30,000—I would even recommend them to a family member,” he says. “Multiple leading institutions from around the world have shown them to be safe.”

But, as Dr. Zuckerman urges, it’s important to discuss the risk with your doctor before getting implants, because some women felt blindsided and uninformed about the disease possibility. “We know women who, when they developed ALCL, felt betrayed because their doctors hadn’t warned them of the risks.”

Breast implants also have the possibility of causing other health or physical issues. These issues have not been fully studied, but Zuckerman and the NCHR recently released a paper that discusses some of the possible side effects.

The risks that come with implants are real for all women, Dr. Zuckerman tells SurvivorNet, but these risks increase with a personal or family history of autoimmune or connective tissue symptoms or diseases. They can happen soon after getting implants or years later, and are especially likely when a silicone gel implant breaks—most likely after three years. Another issue is that leaking silicone can migrate into the lymph nodes, and, “from there, the silicone can get into the lungs, liver, or other organs.” Broken saline implants, she continues, offer less risk when they leak, but can cause health issues from the silicone shell, other chemicals, as well as from bacteria, fungus and mold issues that develop over time.

This isn’t the first time instance of concern regarding breast implants and potential health risks. Throughout the 1980’s and early 1990’s, a company called Dow Corning was named in a number of class-action lawsuits claiming that their breast implants were the cause of a number of health issues.

In 1992, the FDA mandated that silicone implants be removed from the market, but they were re-introduced in 2006 following stricter regulations around tracking patients for at least 10 years after their surgeries. However, because monitoring the implants and patients with them is not always thorough nor properly reported, it is difficult to know for sure what side effects implants are having in the long term.

The best idea, as always, is to discuss all the possible risks and benefits of implants with your doctor before any procedures, and be on alert for any symptoms that indicate a medical issue, suggests Dr. Zuckerman. “If a woman with implants starts to have any of the autoimmune symptoms that we’ve described in our report, she should consider having her implants removed.”

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