Catherine Guthrie, Cosmopolitan: August 18, 2020.
Annie Reynoso wanted a tummy tuck. But her doctor said no. Uterine fibroids meant she wasn’t a good candidate for abdominal surgery. He had an idea though, the doctor. If what Annie was looking for was a physical boost, there were other options out there. Like breast implants.
Then it was a few years later, and odd things started happening: Her breasts swelled to a G-cup. She had fatigue that would knock her out for days. Sudden dizzy spells made it scary for her to drive. She’d get short of breath after walking just a few steps. She had night sweats that soaked her mattress. And there were even stranger symptoms: nausea if she ate before noon, and pain in her chest, neck, ears, and jaw that felt like the worst sunburn of her life. She kept tubes of Aspercreme in her purse, coat pockets, and desk drawer. At least a dozen times a day, she had to slather herself in ointment.
That’s when something finally changed: A friend of Annie’s started feeling better after her implants were removed, and a rheumatologist told Annie some of her symptoms aligned with Sjögren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disease potentially triggered by her implants. After that, all she could think about was getting them out.
Once again, she waited in a surgeon’s office. A new one this time. She’d gotten her implants in the Dominican Republic, where her family lives and they could help her through the recovery. Now she sat alone in New Jersey, consulting with a doctor about having her implants removed in a procedure called an explant. She was hopeful. Until she was told it would cost $7,500—and that insurance wasn’t likely to cover a dime.
And yet, there is evidence to suggest that breast implant illness might actually be an autoimmune disorder caused by implants. In 2018, a study in the International Journal of Epidemiology found that women with silicone breast implants had more than a 20 percent increased risk of being diagnosed with an autoimmune or rheumatic disorder.
There is also overwhelming anecdotal evidence online, in Facebook groups like Breast Implant Illness and Healing by Nicole, where hundreds of thousands of women share their stories. And of course, there are the endless comments on posts like Chrissy Teigen’s recent Instagram update about having her implants removed. Women saying they wish they could too—women saying, “Having them is making me sick.”
For sick women who are financially able to get explant surgery, it can change everything. In a July 2020 study in Annals of Plastic Surgery, researchers found that those experiencing symptoms of breast implant illness saw an improvement in their health within a month of having their implants removed. Like Lauren Dearman, who had explant surgery last November.
She was just 20 when her parents offered to pay $8,000 for her C-cup breast implants. Six years later, she began to have severe abdominal issues and chest pain, bad enough that she went to the ER. She was tired all the time and had such trouble focusing that she couldn’t even write a to-do list. She couldn’t climb the stairs to her third-floor apartment without gripping the railing. Her boyfriend told her she was out of shape. Her boyfriend, she knew, was wrong.
When she came across a Facebook group where women were talking about breast implant illness, the stories read like her own medical file. Within weeks, she made an appointment with a surgeon in Chicago who agreed that her implants could be at the root of her health issues. Lauren cried when she learned how much the surgery would cost. Her parents couldn’t pitch in financially this time, so Lauren withdrew $2,500 from savings and took out a personal loan for $6,500 so she could have the procedure. At $190 a month, she’ll be paying it off for the next three years. But she feels so much better now.
In a health care system that has no problem paying for Viagra (and Viagra overdoses), the fact that women like Lauren have to finance their medical care is infuriating, says Cari M. Schwartz, a lawyer at the firm Kantor & Kantor in California.
Schwartz is working on bringing a class-action lawsuit against insurance companies that deny explant coverage. She’s interviewed hundreds of women across the country desperate to get their implants out. In every case, insurers denied coverage, even when physicians deemed removals medically necessary. Schwartz has seen women rack up credit-card debt, borrow money, lose relationships and jobs, and go bankrupt in an effort to save their health. “Women are essentially told that their health issues are their fault,” she says, “because they chose to get implants.”
In 2019, the FDA said it was putting more effort into educating doctors and patients on the “systemic symptoms” many women with implants experience. Although they also still say they don’t have “definitive evidence demonstrating breast implants cause these symptoms.”
Doctors, too, remain reluctant to get onboard. “To recognize breast implant illness is to kill the goose that laid the golden egg,” says H. Jae Chun, MD, a Newport Beach, California, surgeon who specializes in explant surgery. “And many doctors just aren’t going to mess with the goose.”
In the meantime, one of the only options for desperate patients is the National Center for Health Research’s program to help women navigate the path to explant. They don’t give out money, but if a woman has health insurance, they’ll do what they can to coach her and her plastic surgeon through the insurance maze. Often, that means helping fill out paperwork explaining why the procedure is medically necessary. It’s a process that can take months and still results in a denial the majority of the time, says Diana Zuckerman, PhD, the group’s president. But so far, they’ve helped more than 1,500 women get the explants they need.
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