More than 300,000 women in the United States went under the knife for breast implants in 2017, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. That’s three percent more than in 2016 and 41 percent more than in the year 2000. Breast augmentation has held the number one spot on the top five cosmetic plastic surgery procedures list every year from 2006 to 2017, and it’s rumored that more than 5 million women have breast implants countrywide, including me.
Why is this important? Because tens of thousands of women with breast implants have also been experiencing mysterious, post-op illnesses and symptoms, many of which can now be directly linked to their augmentations.
What Causes Breast Implant Illness?
I spoke with Dr. Kayte Susse, a functional and preventative medicine expert who became a breast implant illness advocate and allopathic and natural medicine specialist after her own battle with mysterious health symptoms upon having her breasts augmented.
Dr. Susse explains that although defining breast implant illness is not linear, holding the implants (and our genetics) responsible is. She reveals that it’s not simply the individual chemicals and heavy metals that are making us ill, but the mixture thereof, as well as the multitude of ways in which the breast implants can make a person sick, which, she says for silicone implants, “are over two dozen different ways.”
This cocktail of chemicals and heavy metals then triggers the patient’s immune response due to a genetic predisposition, which Dr. Susse says depends on “which genes get activated or which enzymes stop doing their job,” explaining why some women can get breast implants and feel completely fine, whereas others experience symptoms ranging from mildly uncomfortable to acutely incapacitating.
She likens it to an environment with heavy alcoholism and cigarette smoking in which that person does not get cancer or die as a result, despite these substances being dangerous and advising against excessive use. “It's not that different with implant illness. We do see a lot of common symptoms, but we also see a lot of ‘weird’ wild card symptoms and have to ask, ‘Is this being caused by the implants?’ The short answer is ‘Yes.’”
“Does that mean it wouldn't happen anyway in that person’s body?” poses Dr. Susse, “Well it can, if they’re genetically predisposed, but altering and clouding your entire internal environment will make it that much more likely.”
What Are The Symptoms of Breast Implant Illness?
It might be better to start with what isn’t a symptom of breast implant illness, the list is that long. However, there are many hallmarks and newly revealed symptoms, including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, associated with breast implant illness, and at least 100 other, lesser acknowledged symptoms as a result.
According to the Healing Breast Implant Illness website, operated by Nicole Daruda, the founder of the Breast Implant Illness and Healing support Facebook group with more than 60,000 female members, “the earlier and more consistent breast implant symptoms...are fatigue, low energy, cognitive dysfunction (brain fog, memory loss), headaches, joint and muscle pain, hair loss, recurring infections, swollen lymph nodes and glands, rashes, IBS, [and] problems with thyroid and adrenals.”
Dr. Susse’s response agrees with these findings, and goes on to include many more, including symptoms such as new or persistent infections, depression, anxiety, panic attacks, suicidal thoughts, burning pain around the chest walls or breasts, dizziness, migraines, mood swings, shortness of breath, night sweats, and insomnia, to name a few.
When asked to comment on how quickly these symptoms may arise, Dr. Susse said “anywhere from immediately to a decade later.” She added that “some women feel okay until they replace a set, and perhaps mobilize chemicals from the pocket, or leave behind toxic capsule tissue.” It also isn’t uncommon for women to not notice any of the classic symptoms, opt to have their implants removed anyway, and then see dramatic changes in their overall health for the better.
Is there Evidence to Support Breast Implant Illness?
In January 2019, the FDA published findings from the largest breast implant study in history. It included 99,993 patients with silicone breast implants and found that they “are associated with an increased risk of certain rare harms,” including higher rates of developing Sjogren syndrome, scleroderma, rheumatoid arthritis, stillbirth, and melanoma.
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A second study in October 2018 studied the link between silicone breast implants and autoimmune/rheumatic disorders, confirming that they do “seem to be associated with higher likelihood of autoimmune/rheumatic disorders diagnosis.”
The National Center for Health Research revealed the purposeful neglect by breast implant companies when it came to researching the link between breast implants and autoimmune diseases in patients who had genetic predispositions.
“Since many women reported problems with autoimmune or connective tissue disorder symptoms such as joint pain and fatigue, breast implant companies did not study the safety of implants in women who had a family history or personal history of autoimmune disease before getting implants,” reports the website. “They intentionally excluded those women because they were concerned that those women might be more likely to have health problems from the implants.”
How is Breast Implant Illness Treated?
If you ask Dr. Susse, she will tell you that there is no such thing as a healthy implant. Dr, Susse discourages any woman from getting breast implants and suggests removal of the implants.
“Once a disease has manifested, it will be very difficult to get said disease under control without first removing obstacles like implants,” she explains. “I know some diligent plastic surgeons who screen women for autoimmunity before using silicone and will often suggest saline for them. Unfortunately, there are just as many issues associated with saline implants, but for different reasons.”
In order to heal yourself from breast implant illness, Dr. Susse recommends working with a functional medicine doctor who is knowledgeable about these devices, joining a support group, such as the Breast Implant Healing and Illness support group on Facebook, and working with a plastic surgeon who is skilled at “En Bloc capsulectomy” and is willing to respect your request for “complete capsule tissue removal.”
What Happens Next?
As a woman who has lived with silicone breast implants for more than a decade, I can certainly relate to some of the more mildly disruptive symptoms here. Brain fog, fatigue, itchy skin on my breasts and incision scars, and shooting pains in my chest and around my implants are a few of the more obvious side-effects that I’ve experienced. I’ve considered having my implants removed because some days I have no energy and don’t know why.
I’ve also considered the after effects of explantation (removal) on my self-esteem. Breast implants are a form of instant gratification. One that’s easy to become attached to. And also one that’s hard to let go of. We so often tie up our self-worth with how we look that it can be difficult to let go of something that makes us feel good when we look in the mirror but tormented when we’re not.
In recent years, there have been public figures who have talked openly about their battles with breast implant illness and their explant surgeries. Crystal Hefner was one of the first to come forward with the removal of her breast implants which she said “slowly poisoned” her.
And most recently has been Sia Cooper, the founder of Diary of a Fit Mommy and popular Instagram influencer. Cooper went so far as to document her before and after surgery photos, which included images of her husband holding her implants, scars, loose skin, and other obstacles that women face after removal.
I found her results to be nothing short of inspiring. Cooper’s face glowed, her smile was brighter, there was visibly less inflammation, and she claimed to feel better and have more energy post-op.
It’s in stories like these and through the support of other women that make me feel like maybe we can all be okay with finally letting go of the implants that are harming us.
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