After years of being unhappy with my breasts, I am thinking of getting breast implants. I am healthy and want to stay that way. What are the risks?

Q. After years of being unhappy with my breasts, I am thinking of getting breast implants. I am healthy and want to stay that way. What are the risks?

A. I’m not a doctor and we don’t provide medical advice, but I can tell you what we know based on research and from speaking with many experts and with women who have had breast implants.

Breast augmentation surgery has risks, but the risks are much greater for some women than others. According to implant makers’ patient booklets, implants are not recommended for women with any of the following:

• Active infection anywhere in your body

• Autoimmune diseases (such as arthritis, lupus and scleroderma). (If family members have these diseases, that can put you at higher risk also)

• Conditions that interfere with wound healing and blood clotting

• A weakened immune system (such as currently receiving immunosuppressive therapy)

Women who have breast cancer in their family are often concerned when they learn that implants can hide cancerous tumors. Saline and silicone breast implants show up as solid white shapes on a mammogram, hiding any tumors above or below. The latest research finds that half of the breast tissue (and half of the tumors) are obscured by breast implants, even when specially trained technicians use additional mammogram views for women with implants.

Even younger women have found that their implants interfere with an early diagnosis. Survivor star Jennifer Lyon died of breast cancer at age 37 in early 2010. According to Jennifer, in 2004 “I felt something in my right breast that didn’t feel normal. I thought it was probably scar tissue related to my breast implants. So I let it go — for a long time.” Jennifer was diagnosed with late-stage breast cancer two months after the tenth season of ‘Survivor’ wrapped in 2005.

All breast implants, silicone or saline, have high complication rates. Research conducted by implant manufacturers and analyzed by the FDA finds that most women have at least one serious complication within the first 3 years. Two of the most common are capsular contracture (which causes breast hardness and pain) and the need for additional surgery.

Most women like the way the implants look and feel for the first few years, but after that many find their implants look less natural or start to feel too firm or hard, and can be very painful. If an implant breaks or causes pain, surgery is necessary – but we hear from many women who can’t afford to pay to have their implants surgically removed. Unfortunately, surgery to fix implant problems can cost more than the augmentation itself. That is why we urge women not to have augmentation surgery unless they have at least an extra $5,000 in savings that they can put away and not spend until they need additional surgery.

The biggest controversy about breast implants is whether they can cause diseases or symptoms that are not in the breast area. We have talked to many implant patients who describe “flu-like” symptoms, or their joints hurt, or their hair started falling out. That’s what happened to Kacey Long, who was featured in Parade Magazine and on MTV’s I Want a Famous Face. Kacey was 19 when she got implants and 21 when she had them removed. She got arthritis and could barely get out of bed, but didn’t think it was related to her implants. However, when her implants were removed she immediately started to feel better.

You can get more information about what to expect if you get implants by checking out our website at http://www.breastimplantinfo.org/before-you-get-implants/.

You can also read some more personal stories of women who have had implants, including Kacey’s story, on our website at http://www.breastimplantinfo.org/personal-stories/ and you can look at some photos of common implant problems at http://www.fda.gov/MedicalDevices/ProductsandMedicalProcedures/ImplantsandProsthetics/BreastImplants/ucm064106.htm.

When studies include women who have implants for just a few months or years, the women seem quite healthy. However, one study by NIH scientists found that women with breast implants for at least 12 years were twice as likely to die of brain cancer, lung cancer, or suicide, compared to other plastic surgery patients. A Canadian study found that women with breast implants were more likely to be hospitalized in the years following their augmentation surgery, than women who did not have breast augmentation.

Of course, many things in life have risks, and only you can decide what risks you are willing to take. Some women are happy with their implants, but we know many who wish they had never made that choice.

We hope this information has been helpful.

The comments and statements of the National Research Center for Women & Families are believed and intended to be accurate, and where applicable, based on scientific literature. NRC’s statements do not constitute medical diagnoses, medical advice, plans of treatment, or legal opinion, and we are not responsible for the use or application of this information. All medical information should be reviewed with your health care practitioner.

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