In the decades since breast implants were first released, studies have tried to link the devices to a range of chronic illness and other conditions. Known collectively as breast implant illness, the term covers conditions that affect nearly all of the body’s major systems, include the central nervous, musculoskeletal, immune, GI, and integument. While these conditions have led to implant removal for countless patients, directly tying the procedure to the condition has been difficult.
It wasn’t until 2011 however, that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was able to positively identify a potential association between implants and cancer. Known as breast implant-associated anaplastic large cell lymphoma, this form of cancer is especially rare – the condition has been reported over 400 times in the United States and over 600 times globally.
While the disease affects tissue near the breast and implant, ALCL is not breast cancer. Instead, it is a type of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma or cancer of the immune system. Malignant cells start in the scar tissue and fluid near the implant but can spread throughout the body as the disease progresses.
Symptoms of Anaplastic Large Cell Lymphoma
As there have been so few cases, there is little literature regarding the disease and early warning signs. Most diagnoses occur when late-stage symptoms start to develop, usually around three to 14 years following surgery. These include:
- Persistent swelling or pain near the implant
- Collection of fluid around the implant (in the capsule)
- Lump under the skin or around part of the implant
Since the disease is not true breast cancer, cancer cells develop in the tissues that surround the implant, not in the breast tissue.
What Causes BIA-ALCL?
Since the disease was discovered recently, there is still very little literature on the causes and risk factors behind breast implant-associated ALCL. However, limited studies on recorded cases suggest that the disease occurs when the tissue around the implant and capsule become inflamed. This causes more fluid to accumulate, damaging cells which can, in turn, mutate into malignant cells. If these cells enter the breast implant pocket, it can access the lymph nodes and spread throughout the body. Other studies have suggested that the disease occurs more frequently in patients with textured implants and that the type of implant (saline or silicone) does not affect patient risk.
Routine check-ups during annual wellness exams are critical to early diagnosis of BIA-ALCL. During these visits, your surgeon or gynecologist will biopsy any fluid from the tissue around the implant to screen for lymphoma. If identified early enough, the most effective treatment is to remove the breast implant and surrounding tissue.
While the BIA-ALCL is certainly a serious concern for many patients, it shouldn’t be an end all deterrent. In fact, a recent study of patients who received their diagnosis early and treated their condition as soon possible showed that 93% of the patients were disease-free within three years.
Like most other major surgeries, breast augmentation comes with risks, and this should be considered one of them. As with any other elective surgery, patients considered breast implants should do their research on the procedure and discuss the risks and benefits with their plastic surgeon.
Situations like these are another reason why choosing an experienced surgeon is so valuable. Being able to trust your surgeon and effectively communicate your concerns regarding ALCL and other risks can help patients feel more comfortable making important decisions about their health. Furthermore, an experienced surgeon can better explain the risks associated with your specific treatment and help develops solutions that mitigate those risks during and after the procedure.
Schedule Your Consultation
Cancer alone is intimidating. Cancer caused by elective surgery can be even more overwhelming. At Dr. Tim Sayed’s practice, our team focuses on providing patients with the information they need to make informed healthcare decisions. Whether you’re considering breast implants or have had implants placed already, our plastic surgeon is here to help you stay healthy and identify potential abnormalities before they can compromise your health. We encourage you to contact our offices in Orange County or La Jolla and schedule your consultation to discuss any questions or concerns.