Breast implants can obscure a cancerous tumor in your breast, making it difficult for it to be spotted via mammogram. The result? The possibility that cancer will be more widespread, and the prognosis poorer, by the time the tumor is eventually discovered.
Do you have a breast implant - maybe two?
Are you considering having implants?
Then you’ll want to think carefully about the results of a recent study showing an association between breast implants, advanced breast cancer, and an increase in breast cancer mortality.
The study, printed May 1 in the online journal BMJ, is a meta-analysis - which means although no study was undertaken specifically to examine the relationship between implants and breast cancer, a number of breast cancer studies were pooled, and certain patterns identified.
In this case, a team led by researcher Eric Lavigne, of Quebec City’s University Laval, noticed a pattern of increased risk for advanced breast cancer and breast cancer death in women with cosmetic breast implants.
Specifically, information from 17 different studies indicates that women with implants have a 26% greater risk of being diagnosed with late-stage breast cancer, and a 38% higher risk of dying from breast cancer, than women without implants.
What’s going on here? Well, mammography is a flawed tool at best. It misses a lot of tumors under the best of circumstances - which would be women with average-to-large breasts, no breast density issues, and no implants.
But for women with dense breasts, and women with implants, the yearly mammogram misses even more potentially cancerous tumors. It’s simply an inherent flaw in the technology. Mammograms perceive fatty tissue as clear, tumors as opaque. An opaque tumor against a clear background is easy to spot.
Unfortunately, non-fatty breast tissue also appears opaque. As do implants. An opaque tumor against a background of opaque implant (or hidden behind an implant) is virtually impossible to spot on a mammogram. Thus these tumors aren’t discovered until they’re large enough to be felt - by which point cancer may have spread outside the breast.
And cancer that’s spread beyond the breast - late-stage cancer - clearly raises the patient’s risk of death.
If you’re considering breast augmentation surgery - well, you’re not alone. Over 300,000 American women have such cosmetic surgery yearly. But if you do choose implants, keep in mind that a yearly mammogram won’t be as effective for you as it is for other women; you might want to supplement your screening with an ultrasound or MRI (which probably won’t be covered by your insurance policy).
And what about implants done as part of reconstructive surgery following mastectomy? Is the risk the same?
The study didn’t cover implants used in reconstruction after mastectomy. Most of a woman’s breast tissue is removed during mastectomy, so her risk of cancer on that side is naturally less.
Still, even after a mastectomy, some breast tissue remains. So keep in mind, if you’re a survivor with an implant you’ll want to be extra-vigilant about knowing what your breast feels like normally, so you can spot any potential changes.
Study author Lavigne is quick to note that those assessing the data should use caution in interpreting its results; although there seems to be a link between implants and breast cancer, there’s no established cause-and-effect relationship. (Lavigne, 2013)
But if you believe where there’s smoke, there’s fire" then let the (implant) buyer beware.
Barclay, L. (2013, May 01). Breast implants linked to poorer survival from breast cancer. Retrieved from https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/803482
Lavigne, E. (2013, May 01). Implants may delay breast cancer detection, raise death risk. Retrieved from https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/news/fullstory_136382.html
PJ Hamel is senior digital content editor and food writer at King Arthur Flour, and a James Beard award-winning author. A 16-year breast cancer survivor, her passion is helping women through this devastating disease. She manages a large and active online survivor support network based at her local hospital and shares her wisdom and experience with the greater community via HealthCentral.com.