All But Forgotten

Tinker Ready, Special to The Los Angeles Times: October 1, 2001

In the made-for-TV movie about two women who took on Dow Corning Corp. and other medical device makers over the safety of silicone breast implants, the women emerge as winners. In real life, P.J. Brent’s story did not have such a happy ending.

Like the movie heroines, the Atlanta mother of six believed she had been poisoned by leaking implants. […] But a Pennsylvania pediatrician contradicted her, telling the FDA that there is no scientific evidence linking Brent’s implants to her children’s severe leg numbness, rashes and difficulty swallowing.

Brent’s story ended a few months after the FDA hearing. One summer morning, she drove to the top of a five-story parking garage at a shopping mall in suburban Atlanta, climbed over the railing and leaped to her death.

For years, women like Brent who blame breast implants for chronic illnesses had lawyers, activists, journalists and a small but determined group of doctors and scientists to back them up. […]

Then, in the mid-1990s, their cases began to unravel. New research failed to find a connection between their symptoms and their implants. Even as breast implant manufacturers agreed to a record-breaking class-action settlement, prestigious medical journals were publishing studies concluding that women with implants were no more likely to be sick than the rest of us. […]

For many women, however, the years since the implant controversy dropped from the front pages of newspapers have been especially hard. They feel doubly victimized by the flip-flop in public, legal and scientific opinion on this issue. Despite evidence to the contrary, many of these women still insist their implants triggered chronic, debilitating illnesses. They suffer health problems ranging from joint pain to lupus to multiple sclerosis but now find themselves cast not as victims, but as frauds. […]

P.J. Brent’s suicide was not the first among women who believe they are ill from implants, Melvin noted. Women with silicone breast implants are four times more likely to commit suicide than other plastic surgery patients, according to a study by the National Cancer Institute. […]

Still, the debate over the science of implant safety quietly persists. Some consumer activists and scientists who launched this debate years ago contend that much remains unknown about the health risks of silicone implants. They contend there are flaws in the research that concluded implants pose no safety risk, saying those studies did not include enough women or follow them long enough to detect diseases that can take 10 years or more to develop. They say that a series of pending studies by the National Institutes of Health of 13,000 women will provide more definitive answers by following more women for a longer time period. They also cite a recent, separate FDA study that, for the first time, looked at women with ruptured, leaking implants. The researchers found women with silicone that had leaked from their implants and beyond the chest area were much more likely to develop chronic diseases, including lupus and fibromyalgia, than women with intact implants. […]

Stuart Bondurant, the dean emeritus of the University of North Carolina medical school, headed the congressional panel, which was based at the prestigious Institute of Medicine. […] Bondurant’s group issued its report in 1999, concluding that the evidence linking silicone implants to serious illness is “insufficient or flawed.”  […]

The Institute of Medicine report was not intended to be the last word, but many doctors, judges and journalists have interpreted it that way, said Diana Zuckerman, the director of the National Center for Policy Research for Women & Families, a Washington, D.C.-based think-tank. As a result, the two reports had “an enormous chilling effect” on both the legal case against implants and the potential for further research, she said.

“It’s a travesty,” said Zuckerman, an epidemiologist and former Capitol Hill aide who organized the first congressional hearing on implant safety. “The women are desperately trying to get someone to help them. They are told it is in their head, and they are treated as if they are just out to get money.”

Zuckerman and others have put their faith in several government studies. One FDA study suggests that women with silicone in their bloodstream may be more vulnerable to health problems, she said. And the first of several NIH studies found that women with implants are more likely than other plastic surgery patients to take their own lives or die from brain tumors and lung cancer. […]

“They feel very invalidated,” she said. “They feel that no one is listening to them.” So they get depressed, only to be told that depression is causing their physical problems, she said. […]

“When the [implant] research reached the conclusion of no increased risk, it didn’t go anywhere else,” he said. The women “are just kind of left on their own.”

So they turn to each other, mostly through Internet support groups, where they trade stories, find doctors willing to remove implants and vent their anger. Often, it is not enough. “Realistically, what these groups do is provide information and shoulders to cry on, and that’s all they can do,” Zuckerman said. […]

Read the original article here

This article includes two corrections that were later published regarding the article. The original article incorrectly quoted Diana Zuckerman regarding silicone in the bloodstream, rather than silicone leaking out of the implant. And, the original article referred to an FDA study finding an increased risk of lupus and fibromyalgia, which should have stated fibromyalgia and other diseases.