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Beware of Breast Implants

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Daphne Robertson began hemorrhaging less than a month after getting breast implants in September 1974. Robertson was visiting her doctor on another medical matter.

Daphne Robertson began hemorrhaging less than a month after getting breast implants in September 1974. Robertson was visiting her doctor on another medical matter. He told her that her breasts hadn't developed properly but a plastic surgeon could fix the problem with implants. In the two decades that followed, the 53-year-old Vancouver resident underwent a hysterectomy. She also suffered from heart, liver, colon, stomach problems and chronic fatigue syndrome.

"I got sicker and sicker and bedridden for six years. I was toxic," she says. "But when I went back to my doctors they kept steering me away from my implants, telling me that there was no proof they were causing my illness: they were safe and would last a lifetime."

Robertson says she was close to death by the time she had the silicone and Dacron patch implants removed in 1993. Despite what doctors told her, Robertson is convinced that her implants caused her 20-year medical nightmare. She is determined to alert others to the damage breast implants have already caused thousands of women like her and the effects they will continue to have on women's bodies if they aren't banned completely.

Breast implants first appeared on the market in the 1960s, but it wasn't until the early 1980s that concerns arose about their safety, including the possible effects that silicone could have on the autoimmune system. Thousands of women worldwide launched lawsuits against breast implant manufacturers blaming their products for lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, body aches, chronic fatigue syndrome, memory loss and hardened, misshapen breasts.

Saline No Solution

In Canada, silicone implants were taken off the market in 1992. Despite the moratorium and multi-billion dollar settlements in favour of plaintiffs, breast augmentation is still one of the most common plastic surgery procedures in Canada today according to the Canadian Society for Aesthetic (Cosmetic) Plastic Surgery. While there are no exact figures, an estimated 8,000 to 16,000 women got saline implants in 1999.

Anti-breast implant advocates like Robertson fear the government and the medical establishment have lulled women into a false sense of security about saline implants, now approved for sale in Canada. Serious health risks are discussed but there is evidence, some it coming from the breast implant manufacturers themselves, indicating that saline implants can affect the body just as severely as their banned silicone cousins.

Canada's two main suppliers of saline breast implants are McGhan Medical and Mentor Corporation. Their products have a high failure rate according to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) which ordered the two US companies to conduct safety studies of their products. According to the results (posted on the FDA Web site at ), of 1,169 women implanted with McGhan implants, 84 per cent of those who underwent reconstructive surgery and 60 per cent of those who had breast enlargements suffered at least one complication within four years. Other problems that researchers uncovered included wrinkled, scarred and asymmetrical breasts, numbness, hardened tissue and breast pain. The Mentor studies showed even slightly more problems and in both studies, the implants of one in 20 women either leaked or deflated within three years.

Fail, Try Again, Fail Worse

The findings are no surprise to Dr Pierre Blais. The Ottawa-based consultant on medical devices and former scientific adviser for Health Canada's Health Protection Branch (HPB) has examined almost 7,000 implants since the 1980s. He says he has seen hundreds of specimens contaminated with fungus and bacteria. His research has yielded a catalogue of potential dangers ranging from physical discomfort to severe infection and damage to the autoimmune and respiratory systems which, in extreme cases, cause death. Saline-filled implants still contain silicone in the envelope and some were on the market before either the FDA or Health Canada had regulatory authority over them.

Blais says the main danger stems from the way implants are inserted under muscle. This causes them to stop circulation in the breast, like a rubber band, causing a reaction similar to fossilization.

"It's like carrying a bowling ball in your pocket," Blais explains. "The body wasn't designed to accommodate such a large artificial object. As a result everything around the implant changes. Over the long term, like any infected site with an abscess-like structure, saline is likely to cause systemic problems. It's not rocket science, just a basic understanding of how the immune system works." One undeniable fact arising from both the FDA findings and Blais' work, is that women who get breast implants are looking at a lifetime of additional surgery, with attendant scars and potential surgical complications. Even unflawed implants have a limited life span of about 10 years.

Robertson is lobbying the government and medical establishment for legislation requiring plastic surgeons to register all implant operations and any unusual symptoms arising from the procedure.

"I will continue to confront people in the industry who know what's going and who won't do anything," she says.

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