A Saanich woman is desperately searching for a plastic surgeon to remove the implants she paid thousands for just five years ago.
When she took up boxing, Jessica Scott went from being a full-figured kid to a lean and active teen. But the sudden weight loss also changed the shape and size of her breasts – a change that made her self-conscious and unhappy.
“I thought that a part of feeling confident as a woman was fixing that part of myself,” she said in an interview in the backyard of her Saanich home.
In 2014, Scott finally had the money to undergo a breast augmentation. Scott received Nutrell Biocell macro-textured implants – a brand manufactured by international pharmaceutical company Allergan – in a Montreal plastic surgeon’s office.
But five years later, now working as a tattoo artist and living in Saanich with her boyfriend, Scott says she’s in constant pain, and all she wants is to get the implants removed.
She described pain through her rib cage, and a sharp shooting pain that accompanies physical activity like jogging. She also says a lump has formed in her left breast. Lying on her side at night sends “sharp, shooting pains” up through her armpit and down her arm.
The pain was concerning, but Scott didn’t panic until she received an email from her plastic surgeon’s office in July. The email detailed how a type of cancer – Breast Implant Associated Anaplastic Large Cell Lymphoma (BIA-ALCL)– had been found to have affected a small number of patients with textured breast implants.
BIA-ACL is described by Health Canada as a “serious but rare type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma that can develop many months or years after a breast implant procedure.”
The email included information on early warning signs such as “new and distinct swelling.”
“I was like, ‘Oh my God, I have to have these removed,’” recalled Scott. “I started researching what was in the media, what had been posted. It turned out there was a lot of information out there on this.”
In July, the U.S. Food and Drug Association (FDA) requested Allergan recall specific models of its textured implants, citing evidence that the products “appeared to be directly linked to patient harm, including death.”
While incidents of the autoimmune cancer are rare, the FDA recorded a total of 573 unique cases of BIA-ALCL and 33 patient deaths globally. And 12 of the fatal cases were of patients who had the textured implant at the time of diagnosis. In Canada there are 26 confirmed cases of BIA-ALCL, 85 per cent of which involved Allergan’s Biocell implants.
In May, Health Canada prohibited the sale and use of the implants after the company failed to provide evidence that the “benefits of the use of the devices outweighed the risks.” In July, Allergan issued a recall worldwide.
Health Canada’s BIA-ALCL risk estimate is one in 3,565 for the specific type of textured implant Scott has – but that doesn’t put her mind at ease.
“It could be scar tissue pushing on a nerve,” she said of her symptoms. “It might not be that I have this anaplastic large cell lymphoma, but they won’t know until the explant.”
But it turns out that getting the implants removed won’t be easy.
Scott said booking an explant in Victoria was extremely difficult – even though she was willing to pay out of pocket. She also says that when she tried to book an explant with the plastic surgeon who performed her augmentation, she was denied the surgery. She says her surgeon did not believe her symptoms were being caused by the implants.
“It’s completely unacceptable. I’m scared for anyone else who isn’t aware of this,” Scott said. “I’m going through an ordeal and I’m scared and I need help.”
For Julie Elliott, public relations director for the Breast Implant Failure and Illness Society of Canada, it’s a story that’s all too familiar. She says many plastic surgeons aren’t trained to administer explants – a riskier, more complex surgery than implants – and even if they are, they don’t always believe patient concerns.
“A lot of surgeons are trying to convince us – or themselves – that ‘you don’t actually need to remove your breast implants in order to get better,” she told Black Press Media in a phone conversation. “[They say] if you’re sick it’s not because of your implants. It’s everything else but your implants.’”
“Breast implant illness is not medically recorded as a condition,” Elliott added. “It’s a systemic manifestation of an ensemble of symptoms that women experience following a breast cancer implantation. There’s no consensus in the medical community about breast implant illness, far from it, actually.”
Elliot’s biggest concern is the flippant manner she says doctors and surgeons are addressing BIA-ALCL.
“To me, that’s the real concern,” she said. “Because women are aware, women are looking for answers, for information… but unfortunately, it’s this wave of minimization that, to me, is the most concerning aspect of this cancer.
“It’s a community of over half a million women [with reported breast implant illness symptoms.]” she added. “I think the medical community should unite with us. Stop minimizing and start helping.”
For Scott, the wait continues. She was able to book an appointment with a doctor who specializes in explants. But her first consultation isn’t until November. She says it was important for her to advocate for herself and her health concerns.
“I want women to be aware that if they’re feeling uncomfortable or feeling something in their bodies to listen to their bodies, and not let the doctors tell them what to believe.”