The Politics of Women's Health
More women are getting breast implants than ever before. Every year, more than 300,000 women and teenagers in the U.S. undergo breast implant surgery for augmentation and approximately 80,000 women undergo breast implant surgery for reconstruction after mastectomy. The number of breast augmentations of women and teenagers has more than tripled since 1997, when there were just over 101,000 of these procedures.
The dramatic increase in breast implant surgery does not necessarily reflect a similarly dramatic increase in the number of women with breast implants, however. Many women who undergo surgery are replacing old implants that have broken or caused problems. Some women report as many as ten or more surgeries as their implants are replaced over the years. There are no available statistics on how many women undergo their first breast implant surgery every year.
A breast implant is a flexible silicone envelope filled with salt water (saline) or silicone gel. Because of safety concerns, silicone implants were banned for use in cosmetic surgery in 1992, and were not approved by the FDA until 2006. When they were approved, the FDA made it clear that approval was based on the assumption that women would be informed of the risks and make a decision about whether those risks were worth taking.
How risky are breast implants? This is a controversial question, but implant manufacturers have done research showing that local complications, including pain, rupture, and the need for additional surgery, are very common within the first three years. These complications are even higher for mastectomy patients who choose implants to replace their breasts.
Within 10-12 years, most women will have at least one broken implant, although women with silicone gel implants donít always realize it. Research by scientists at the National Cancer Institute reported that women with breast implants for at least seven years were more likely to die from brain cancer, lung cancer, or suicide, compared to other plastic surgery patients of the same age. In fact, several studies indicate that suicide rates are higher for women with breast implants than for other women their age.
There are also concerns that breast implants may be associated with other health risks such as autoimmune diseases, and recent studies show a link between breast implants and a rare cancer of the immune system called anaplastic large cell lymphoma (ALCL). In addition, breast implants can interfere with cancer detection, because implants can hide the mammography image of a tumor, resulting in a delay in cancer diagnosis. Mammogram machinery can also rupture an implant.
Debate swirls over the risks of breast implants, and women considering implants are justifiably confused by the conflicting information available. To find up-to-date information on research, risks, and controversy over breast implants, see www.breastimplantinfo.org, a website created by the National Research Center for Women & Families. (Available in Spanish at www.implantesdemama.org.)
Written by Diana Zuckerman, PhD, Elizabeth Nagelin-Anderson, MA, and Elizabeth Santoro, RN, MPH. Adapted with permission from material from the Implant Information Project. Last revised August 2013.
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