Breast implants- are they safe?

Heather Stephen

Breast implants are the most popular cosmetic surgery in the UK but can women really be confident the op is safe? Heather Stephen investigates.

Nearly 8,000 women have breast augmentation in the UK each year, according to the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons (BAAPS). Not just to look sexy but to correct uneven breasts or as reconstruction after cancer surgery.

We expect a procedure like this to be thoroughly vetted and checked but media reports in recent years have raised a question mark over its safety.

Implants made by the French company PIP were withdrawn from the UK in 2010 after they were found to contain industrial silicone. And earlier this year nine deaths were reported in America of women who contracted the rare blood cancer anaplastic large cell lymphoma (ALCL) after having breast implants.

It’s a worry. So how can you be sure your implants aren’t endangering your health?

Let’s take this recent story about those deaths in America. Way back in 2011 the FDA – the US body which ensures safety of drugs and medical devices – reported a link between the blood cancer ALCL and implants but it didn’t know why.

This March the body reported that the disease was much more likely to occur with textured breast implants – the type used most widely in the UK. And there was an increased risk if it contained silicone as opposed to saline.

So it seems there is a link but the chances of developing this cancer from implants are extremely rare. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, the incidence of the disease is estimated to be two in every one million patients with implants. But in a statement BAAPS revealed its members had performed nearly 100,000 breast augmentations over the last decade but had not reported one case of ALCL.

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Harley Street consultant plastic surgeon Naveen Cavale says the risk of developing ALCL from implants is minuscule.

“This is a really rare cancer. Women should be aware that this is another small risk they need to look out for but they should be more concerned about breast cancer which affects 1 in 9 women.”

Mr Cavale says women with breast implants have no greater risk of breast cancer and should follow the advice given to all women to seek immediate medical advice from their GP or cosmetic surgeon for any breast pain, lumps, swelling or fluid retention.

Consultant plastic surgeon Navid Jallali says women should be aware of the increased risk linked to some textured implants but says we need to keep the dangers in perspective.

“There is a risk,” he says. “This is an entity we were not aware of until recently but the risk is very small so, although women should be vigilant, they should not be alarmed.

“In the UK textured implants have been favoured because patients with smooth implants are more likely to develop capsular contracture where scar tissue hardens around the implant causing deformity and pain.

“Some surgeons are moving back to smooth implants because of the risk of ALCL but patients need to weigh up the possible issues for both types before making their decision.

“Most patients are concerned that implants may cause breast cancer but there is no evidence for this. In fact, some studies say women with implants have a lower risk because they have less breast tissue.”

The MHRA – the government body which monitors safety of medical devices in the UK – is part of an EU task force looking at the potential risks of breast implants. It is currently reviewing the scientific evidence and if it has concerns about safety the body has powers to withdraw products from the market.

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“Patient safety is our highest priority and we continue to actively monitor this issue,” says the MHRA spokesman. “If you have breast implants and notice any lumps or skin changes in your breasts, neck or armpits please speak to your surgeon or GP. And you can report any suspected side effects or complications to MHRA through our yellow card scheme.”

All breast implants have to carry a CE mark to be sold in Europe which means they have been checked for safety by an independent body.

And the Breast and Cosmetic Implant Registry set up by the Department of Health in 2016 to document all implant procedures carried out in England will help the MHRA track down patients if there are any safety concerns.

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