Government Studies Link Breast Implants to Cancer, Lung Diseases, and Suicide

By Diana Zuckerman, Ph.D. and Rachael Flynn, MPH

Two major new studies raise questions about the long-term safety of breast implants. A team of researchers led by Louise Brinton, Ph.D., of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) recently published these studies on the long-term health effects of breast implants. One of the studies found that women with breast implants are more likely to die from brain tumors, lung cancer, other respiratory diseases, and suicide compared to other plastic surgery patients. The other study found a 21% overall increased risk of cancer for women with implants, compared to women of the same age in the general population.

These studies are the first to look at all types of cancer and all causes of death among breast implant patients. While the authors were not able to determine whether implants caused these illnesses, the results show a doubling of brain cancer and a tripling of lung cancer, emphysema, and pneumonia for women with implants. Even though these findings were described as “unexpected,” they are consistent with previous research that shows brain abnormalities and lung problems related to breast implants. There was also a four-fold increase in suicide for breast implant patients, which seems to contradict the manufacturers’ assertion that implants improve a woman’s feeling of self-worth.

Why are these results so different from widely reported claims that breast implants do not cause any diseases? One reason may be that the women included in the studies all had implants for at least eight years. Previous research included women who had only had breast implants for a year or two, or even a few months. Therefore, these new studies are the first examine the long-term health effects of breast implants. Unfortunately, even though diseases may take much longer than 8 years to develop and be diagnosed, the findings from these well-designed studies indicate a potentially serious risk for the health of women with breast implants.

Another possible reason for this difference is that plastic surgeons and the implant manufacturers helped design and fund much of the previous research on implants; these groups have a tremendous financial stake — billions of dollars — in the outcome. Perhaps that is why so many previous studies focused on just a few, rare diseases, rather than a more comprehensive evaluation of the women’s health.

Study Design
The comprehensive studies started with the same group of nearly 13,500 women from 6 different geographical regions in the U.S. Information was gathered from patient questionnaires and medical records. Both studies compared women with implants to women who underwent other forms of plastic surgery as well as the general population of women the same age. In general women with implants were healthier than women in the general population, but less healthy than other plastic surgery patients. The latter is a more appropriate comparison because all plastic surgery patients tend to be more affluent than the general population, and more affluent women tend to live longer.

More Research Needed
More independent research, funded by the federal government, is needed to determine why breast implants are linked to cancer and other fatal diseases in these new studies. In addition, these two studies need to be continued to see whether the results change as the women (and their implants) age. Since approximately 2 million women in the United States already have breast implants and another 300,000 are planning on getting them this year, research on the long-term health effects is long overdue.

The new studies are:
Brinton, LA, Lubin, JH, Burich, MC, Colton, T, and Hoover, RN. Mortality Among Augmentation Mammoplasty Patients, Epidemiology 2001; 12: 321-326.

A 2006 update of the above study

Brinton, LA, Lubin, JH, Burich, MC, Colton, T, Brown, SL, and Hoover, RN. Cancer Risk at Sites Other Than the Breast Following Augmentation Mammoplasty. Annals of Epidemiology 2001;11: 248-256.