Breast implants may give women confidence, but they’re also giving a rising number of them cancer. The Food and Drug Administration announced recently that more women with implants are being diagnosed with anaplastic large cell lymphoma, a rare and deadly type of cancer that affects immune system cells.
Compared to women without breast implants, those who have undergone the procedure have a higher risk of developing this type of cancer. At least 457 American women with implants have been diagnosed with it thus far, and nine have died from it.
In response to these concerning statistics, the FDA has issued a letter warning medical professionals of the link between the implants and this type of lymphoma. The letter says that doctors should be particularly concerned about patients who experience new swelling, pain or lumps around their implants. The disease is fatal but grows slowly and can be treated if it is detected early enough. They’ve also asked health care providers to report cases of breast implant associated with anaplastic large cell lymphoma, or BIA-ALCL, to the FDA.
The FDA letter explains where the cancer is forming. Breast implants are generally placed behind breast tissue or beneath the chest muscle. A fibrous scar known as a capsule eventually develops around the implant and separates it from the breast, and it is within this capsule and adjacent to the implant itself where most of the BIA-ALCL cases have been found. It can also spread throughout the body.
Textured breast implants often to blame
So far, most of the cancers have been reported by women who got textured breast implants. These implants have a slightly rough surface rather than a smooth covering, although the smooth variety’s link can’t be ruled out as the type of implant in some lymphoma cases is not known. Despite this link, however, the FDA has stopped short of banning the sale of textured implants, even though other countries have done so. In the U.S., just 10 percent of implants are textured; that figure is as high as 80 percent in some countries.
Last month, France became the first country to ban the implants, although it did not recommend that the 70,000 French women who have this type of implant get them surgically removed. So far, 59 cases of BIA-ALCL have been recorded there and three women have died from it. The country was involved in a different breast cancer scandal back in 2010 when it was revealed that a popular implant maker had been filling them using a cheap industrial silicone gel rather than the medical-grade variety, putting their lives in danger. On that occasion, the French government did recommend removal.
The Netherlands and Canada are also planning to stop sales of textured breast implants in the coming months.
Roughly 11 million women worldwide have breast implants. In addition to lymphoma, some women with implants have been experiencing systemic problems collectively known as “breast implant illness.” This includes symptoms such as pain, immune problems, chronic fatigue, and cognitive issues. Many women find that these symptoms resolve upon removal of their implants.
Women who are considering getting breast implants, whether their reasons are cosmetic or reconstructive, need to be aware of the risks of BIA-ALCL and other issues so they can make an informed decision, and those who decide to go through with the procedure also need to know what symptoms they should be looking out for. Some advocates believe that women aren’t getting all the facts up front about breast implants and cancer and that many would not have undergone the procedure had they been aware of the risks.
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