Breast implants are not just for women who want larger breasts. Surgeons use them regularly to re-build the breasts of women who have mastectomies. And the implant of choice for these women is silicone implants. Yes, the FDA took silicone implants off the market in 1992. But doctors can still use them legally for women who've had mastectomies.
Unfortunately, these women, with compromised immune systems, may be precisely the people who should avoid them at all costs!
For years, manufacturers of silicone implants insisted that their implants were safe. Scientists considered silicone a "biologically inactive substance" that couldn't cause any harm. So manufacturers never proved that they were safe. And the FDA, the government agency designed to protect us, didn't require it. It's true that studies backed up their alleged safety. It's also true that none of them were long-term studies.
Meanwhile, numerous women with these implants came down with autoimmune diseases and vascular conditions. Many won thousands of dollars for their pain and illnesses. Obviously, some women are particularly sensitive to silicone.
Only after multiple lawsuits did the FDA finally take the implants off the market. The manufacturers rushed to make a viable alternative, and came up saline implants.
But are saline implants really safer than silicone implants? The answer is no. That's because even though the implant contains saline, the external covering is still made from silicone! So if you're sensitive to silicone, it doesn't matter which one you use – they're both going to cause problems.
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The manufacturers of saline implants will tell you that the silicone covering is strong, and that you can drive a truck over their product without rupturing it. But here's the problem: no one knows how body fluids and tissues affect the implant's covering. Your body's natural defenses, designed to attack foreign invaders, could add to the breakdown of silicone, allowing it to migrate to other tissues.
If you already have implants and want to keep them, the best way to avoid illness is to have them replaced periodically. An oncologist I spoke with said that 10 years is too long for any implant to remain in the body. He recommends that his patients have them replaced at least every eight years.
If you don't have implants, but have to undergo a mastectomy, I strongly encourage you to consider muscle flap reconstruction. With this surgery, the surgeon uses tissues from your stomach or buttocks to rebuild your breast. No foreign objects; no risk for autoimmune diseases down the line.
Your voice of reason in Women's Health,
Dr. Janet Zand
"Experts still question long-term safety of silicone breast implant," AP, Toronto, January 12, 2006.
Rados, C., "Making an informed decision about breast implants," FDA Consumer magazine, September-October 2004.