Breast implants are one of the most popular cosmetic procedures — making it into the top-five list of cosmetic surgeries in 2020, even with a pandemic-related decline — promising fuller and bigger breasts, sought after by those who desire a more "feminine" appearance.
But while in search of such affirming aesthetics, many women have found themselves incredibly ill due to their implants.
Celebrities such as Victoria Beckham and Danica Patrick have been vocal about their decisions to explant — meaning to have their breast implants removed — citing chronic fatigue, pain and tenderness as just some of the many symptoms that pushed them to make the move. And they're not alone: In 2020, 36,367 breast explant procedures were performed in the U.S., according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (as opposed to 193,073 breast augmentations that year — a 33% decrease from 2019 — along with 137,808 post-mastectomy reconstructive implant surgeries).
Also, according to RealSelf, a health care marketplace where users can research cosmetic procedures, searches for "breast implant removal" increased 197% from 2020 to 2021 and are currently tracking 75% over last year's volume, a representative for RealSelf tells Yahoo Life.
"With more local and A-list celebrities having their breast implants removed, and being vocal about it on TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, [women] can say, 'OK, I know her, she's gorgeous, she looks great. She had her implants out. I've been dying to get my implants out,'" plastic surgeon Joshua Lampert tells Yahoo Life about how social media has fostered a community of reassurance for women interested in explanting.
Lampert, who has performed over 100 implant-removal surgeries for women of all ages, believes another reason behind the surge in interest is that implants, first developed in the ’60s, have significantly aged inside women. And the older implants are, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, the greater risk of rupture or other complications.
Complications related to breast implant illness (BII) — a collection of physical and mental ailments that can occur following the insertion of implants, whether saline or silicone — are a big reason many women choose to explant. And while not yet an official medical diagnosis, BII is acknowledged by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, which offers a warning on its site.
What it's like to have BII
While many women are having decades-old implants removed, as Lampert noted, some are reversing course much sooner.
"I started having severe depression, a lot of anxiety," says 28-year-old Miami-based influencer Kathryn Palacios, who had her implants removed in March — just three years after her augmentation surgery. In addition to those psychological effects, Palacios experienced physical symptoms such as shortness of breath, weight gain and heart palpitations.
"I felt like I legit was about to have a heart attack. I had sharp pains in my breast, and sometimes I felt like I literally wanted to rip my implants out," she tells Yahoo Life.
Palacios paid $3,500 for her breast augmentation in Colombia and just over $11,000 to have them removed in Florida.
As is the case for many elective procedures, breast explant surgery is rarely covered by insurance, so Palacios had to pay the total cost. But she said her doctor, like many others, accepted CareCredit, a health care credit card, for the procedure.
For Palacios, the instant relief was well worth the cost.
"The same day I came out of surgery, I felt 90% better, I had a crazy amount of energy. My breathing went back to normal," she recalls.
Sadia Mansoor, a 31-year-old influencer and mom of one from Orange County, Calif., had a similar experience of feeling better right away — and came to her decision to have explant surgery very quickly after getting the implants in the first place.
"I got them in January of 2021, and they were removed in March of 2022," she tells Yahoo Life.
Mansoor always wanted breast implants but decided to wait until after she had her child and finished breastfeeding to get the procedure in hopes of boosting her recently dwindled self-esteem.
"Going through a divorce and things like that, especially after childbirth, make you kind of feel not so great inside, and so I thought some nice new boobs would help with that," she says. But by October 2021 she began feeling dizzy, had consistent migraine attacks and was even once rushed to the hospital.
"I actually ended up going to the emergency room because there was one time where I actually fainted, and they just kept sending me home," she says, recalling moments when she felt so ill that she couldn't hold her child. "I couldn't even pick up my son, I just had pain all over my body, I was so weak."
Eventually, the situation became so dire that Mansoor was unable to complete simple tasks. "I was literally bedridden. It just didn't make sense," she says. After multiple CAT scans and EMGs (electromyography scans, to measure muscle response) that came back normal, she decided to dig into research on breast implant illness.
"The more stories I read, the more it kind of resonated with me. I came across so many women that had gone through really similar things and were told that 'It's just in your head,'" Mansoor says.
Once she realized her implants were the cause of her declining health, she was faced with a new struggle: finding a surgeon who would take her seriously. She recalls one doctor in particular who agreed to the procedure but did not believe her breast implants were actually making her sick.
"He said that he could take out the implants, but he would not give me the lift I wanted because in his opinion, he thought I would be back to get my implants put back in when I figured out that the implants had nothing to do with my symptoms," she says.
But for many women, a lift after removal is an important part of maintaining the shape of the breast.
"When we remove the implant, the breast basically wants to cave in as the implant pocket collapses," says Lampert. "We're doing a breast lift to help reshape and reduce the risk of post-explant deformity."
Eventually, Mansoor was able to get a complete implant removal as well as a lift. At four months out, she couldn't be happier with her results.
"I am 100% back to myself, I don't have any of those symptoms, I'm back to working, I'm back to going out with my friends and taking good care of my son," she says.
Jodie DiFranco, a 29-year-old stay-at-home mom in Ohio, decided to get implants after battling low self-esteem due to the size of her breasts.
"Growing up, my mom had breast implants, and so she had, like, large breasts for her very small frame. And then both my older sisters had very large breasts. I just never grew anything bigger than maybe a C cup and I got bullied by family members and by kids at school pretty heavily, because I never had big boobs and I have lots of family members who had big boobs," DiFranco tells Yahoo LIfe.
She got her implants when she was 24 and says she initially felt fine following the procedure.
"I was, like, right back to what I was doing but with just really big, perky boobs, which is like a win-win, right?" she says. Unfortunately, this would not be the case for long, as she soon began experiencing painful cystic acne flare-ups.
"Bless their hearts, but kids have no filters; they don't know, so they were like, 'What's wrong with your face? Aren't you too old for pimples?'" she says.
Still unaware that her breast implants could be the reason for the changes in her body, DiFranco began taking Accutane. However, the symptoms kept coming.
"I started getting these weird pains in my chest where it would feel like the [implants] were on fire, and the pain was so bad and at one point my implant was poking, like, through my skin," she says, noting that she had received a type of Allergan implant that was one of several recalled in 2019 due to risks of breast-implant-associated lymphoma.
And, as it does for so many other women, the ramifications of having a foreign object in her body began to affect every aspect of her life, including intimacy.
"Me and my husband couldn't have sex without me being in pain, because whatever we tried to do, it hurt," she says.
And, similar to Mansoor, having implants made it difficult to take care of her children.
"They hurt [when I held] my baby," DiFranco says, adding that she also began dealing with nerve pain from the implants. "I started getting, like, sciatic nerve pain, shooting nerve pain down my legs," she says.
DiFranco began looking into explant surgery in 2020 after joining Facebook groups where women would share their experiences with breast implant illness.
The decision was a no-brainer for her, but not everyone around her was convinced.
"My mom actually came with me to my pre-op appointment and told my doctor that he should just put saline ones back in so I'm not flat," she says.
Despite her mother's suggestions, DiFranco had her implants removed in May 2022 and wants to ensure that her three daughters grow up knowing that the size of their breasts does not correlate with their value.
"I'm like, 'These are made to feed babies, they mean nothing about how beautiful you are, and I will continue to tell you this for the rest of your life,'" she says.
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