Getting breast implants can change a person’s life for the better. But in recent years some people have suspected that their breast implants have made them very ill with diseases such as:
Studies show there’s no clear scientific evidence connecting these conditions to breast implants. However, the World Health Organization and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have identified a possible cause for concern relating breast implants to a rare cancer called breast implant-associated anaplastic large cell lymphoma (BIA-ALCL).
Additionally, breast implants are known to cause:
- breast pain
- sensory changes
- implant leakage or rupture
Scientists say the exact causes of BIA-ALCL aren’t well understood. However, it does appear that textured implants are associated with more cases of BIA-ALCL than smooth implants. Scientists say this could be due to the fact that textured implants have a greater surface area on which bacteria can form. These bacteria can cause a low-grade infection that could trigger an immune response that ultimately, in very rare cases, results in BIA-ALCL.
If you choose a textured type of implant, it’s essential to prevent infection. Infection is a much more common illness caused by breast implants. Any surgery comes with infection risks, including breast augmentation. Infections can occur when a surgery site isn’t kept clean or if bacteria enters your breast during surgery.
Besides infection, other complications associated with breast implants may occur. These include:
- blood clots
- skin necrosis
- slowed wound healing
- scar tissue buildup (capsular contracture)
- implant deflation and rupture
- change in breast shape, volume, or sensation
- thinning of your breast tissue and skin
- calcium deposits
- breast discomfort
- nipple discharge
- dropping or bottoming out of the implant
- need for further surgery
BIA-ALCL is often contained inside the tissue surrounding the implant but can spread to other parts of your body, including the lymph nodes. The main symptoms include:
- continuous swelling or pain around your breast implant, which may occur long after a surgical incision has healed or many years after implants are inserted
- fluid collection around your breast implant
- capsular contracture, which is a lump under your skin or thick scar tissue around the implant
Symptoms of other breast implant complications vary. As noted above, infection is one complication associated with BIA-ALCL. So it’s important to treat any breast implant complications that arise. If you experience any of the following symptoms, you should call your doctor right away:
- change in breast shape or color
BIA-ALCL is classified as a T-cell lymphoma. It may develop following the surgical insertion of breast implants.
T-cell lymphomas are cancers that form in your T cells, a type of immune system cell. These cancers may be fast or slow growing. The outlook for a person diagnosed with BIA-ALCL depends on the stage of their cancer at diagnosis and how aggressive it is.
Half of all reported cases of BIA-ALCL are reported within 7 to 8 years of the insertion of breast implants. Because the symptoms of BIA-ALCL are relatively nonspecific, experts say these diagnoses may be complicated and delayed. But as scientific knowledge about it has grown in recent years, experts have begun to establish diagnosis standards.
When a doctor suspects BIA-ALCL, they’ll run a variety of tests to rule out any other causes of your symptoms. These tests may include:
- An ultrasound-guided aspiration of fluid that’s collected around your breast implant. An increased T cell count in this fluid can tip off your doctor to BIA-ALCL.
- Thick scarring that’s apparent around your implant.
- If an abnormal breast mass is found, your doctor may test the tissue for lymphoma using a biopsy.
If you're diagnosed with BIA-ALCL, your doctor will recommend a PET-CT scan to check for signs of lymphoma in other parts of your body. This cancer, while rare, is quite aggressive and can spread.
For most people with BIA-ALCL that’s confined to the tissues surrounding one or both breasts, surgical removal of one or both implants is necessary. With an earlier stage 1 diagnosis, implant removal is enough to stop the progression of the disease.
However, for cancer at stage 2 or higher that’s spread, more aggressive treatment is necessary. In addition to implant removal, chemotherapy can slow or stop disease progression.
Other complications associated with breast implants are often treated on a symptom-by-symptom basis. Antibiotics are often used to treat infection, though in severe cases surgery might be necessary to remove the implants that have caused infection.
The survival rate for people with BIA-ALCL is relatively high at 89 percent at five years for those with stage 2 cancer or higher. The survival rate is even higher for people with stage 1 cancer who have a complete removal of their affected implant or implants and cancerous breast tissues.
However, cancer treatment is challenging, expensive, and not always effective.
Although there are risks associated with breast augmentation, it’s still considered a safe procedure. Before your procedure, make sure you understand your risks for complications. Keep in mind that the risk for BIA-ALCL is exceedingly rare.
To minimize your risk for infection, implant rupture, and breast cancer illness, closely monitor your breasts after your procedure. Follow your surgeon’s aftercare instructions closely. See your doctor right away if you notice any changes in your breasts or health, especially if you experience signs of infection.