Breast Implants and Cancer Risk
In recent years, women with breast implants have learned that they are at risk of developing a rare type of cancer known as breast implant-associated anaplastic large cell lymphoma (BIA-ALCL). BIA-ALCL typically occurs in the scar tissue capsule or fluid that surrounds the implant. In some cases, BIA-ALCL can spread throughout the body.
Different types of cancers are grouped together based on where in the body they began. Lymphomas like BIA-ALCL begin in cells that make up the immune system. These cells, known as lymphocytes, play an important role in keeping the body free from disease. BIA-ALCL causes certain lymphocytes—known as T-cells—to mutate and grow out of control.
This means that even though the disease and symptoms occur in the breast, BIA-ALCL is not considered to be a breast cancer.
How Long Does It Take Breast Implant Cancer Symptoms to Develop?
Symptoms of breast implant cancer (BIA-ALCL) occur no earlier than one year after surgery. The average time between the operation and the development of symptoms is around eight to 10 years. In one outlier case, a woman was diagnosed 32 years after her initial breast implants.
The manner in which BIA-ALCL begins and develops is not yet entirely understood. Researchers believe that BIA-ALCL tumor cells may come from a long-term interaction between T-cells and toxins or other foreign substances on the surface of some implants.
Common Breast Implant Cancer Symptoms
The most common symptoms women with BIA-ALCL first experience are persistent swelling and/or pain around the breast. Often, these symptoms occur long after the surgery site has healed.
In addition to pain and swelling, other common symptoms include:
- Breast enlargement
- Lumps in the breast or armpit
- Breast asymmetry or changes in appearance
Since many of these symptoms are normal immediately after surgery, it should be stressed that it is not common for symptoms of BIA-ALCL to appear less than one year after surgery.
Other BIA-ALCL Symptoms
Some less common symptoms can include:
- Skin rash
- Hardening of the breast
- Weight loss
Since BIA-ALCL is a form of lymphoma—an immune system cancer—women should be alert to any sudden changes in their bodies. New immune system deficiencies or increased sensitivity to chemicals (perfume, household cleaners, exhaust fumes and so on) could be early warning signs.
Differentiating Symptoms of Cancer from Other Causes
Some of the symptoms noted above are similar to those of other diseases, including breast cancer, which develops in 1 in 8 women in the United States. When it comes to ALCL, the symptoms can be caused by fluid buildup around the implant, known as “seroma.”
A seroma is a small pocket of fluid that sometimes develops near the point of surgery. It is important to note that seromas are normal and usually not malignant. However, if the fluid buildup develops more than a year after surgery, it is smart to get the fluid tested.
All Breast Implants Put Women at Slightly Increased Risk
Although breast implant-associated ALCL is very rare, any woman who had breast implant surgery is considered to be “at risk.” This is due to the fact that women have developed the cancer after both cosmetic and reconstructive implant procedures with both silicone-gel-filled and saline-filled implants. As of now, there is not enough data to determine whether the type of implant fill is a risk factor for developing breast implant cancer.
The surface of the implant shell, however, does matter. According to the FDA, textured implants have a much higher incidence rate associated with BIA-ALCL than do smooth-surfaced implants. The exact reasons why are still being determined by doctors and researchers.
Currently, there is no definitive way to test if someone is at increased risk of developing cancer as a result of their breast implants. So, despite the rarity of BIA-ALCL, any woman who had breast implant surgery should be aware of the risk. If it is caught early, the cancer can usually be treated successfully by a complete removal of the implant and its surrounding tissue.
Knowledge Is Power—Suspicious Symptoms Should Be Checked Out
If you had successful breast implant placement years ago and cancer-like symptoms are only now emerging, it is important to see a doctor right away. Hopefully, any discomfort or swelling you are experiencing is not the result of breast implant cancer, but there is always strength and peace of mind in knowing for sure.
Women should be especially cautious if they have a textured implant made by Mentor, Johnson & Johnson, Allergan, Actavis or Sientra. There is no downside to consulting a physician, and earlier detection makes for easier treatment and a more favorable prognosis.
If the symptoms you are experiencing are due to breast implant-associated ALCL, there will be a long road ahead. Regardless of treatment success, the ordeal will result in significant pain, suffering, lost wages and potentially many more hurdles as well. It will place a life-changing strain on friends and family members, and it is important to have access to help and support.