From 1971 until 1981, I portrayed Erin on The Waltons. It was a wonderful experience, and when it was over I was 21 and wanted to continue to work as an actress. I studied, took classes, and did theater. But, it didn’t take long to realize that it wasn’t enough to be the “All American Girl” anymore. I was told that I would have more opportunities as an actress if I was sexier. And I was told that bigger breasts would make me sexier. I was advised to get breast implants, but I was reluctant. I carefully considered it, asking the doctors all the usual questions about risks. The plastic surgeon told me that they were safe and would last a lifetime. And so, at the age of 24, I took their advice. I was so embarrassed, I didn’t even tell my mother.
I later found out that it was impossible for me to make an informed choice, because the information was not available to me, or any woman, in 1984. Not a single study had ever been done on any women to find out whether they were safe.
If I had been told by my doctor that after having implants I might break out in rashes, run fevers, and become sensitive to light, I never would have had implants. If I had been told I would have muscle pain, that I would be stiff, and have chronic fatigue, I never would have had implants. If my doctor had told me that I would wake up feeling like I was hit in the head with a frying pan, that I would have dry eyes, shooting pain in my ribs and chest, and my breasts would ache, I never would have had implants. If he had told me there was even the slightest chance that I might develop connective tissue disease or that I wouldn’t be able to pick my daughter up or hold her close, believe me, I never would have made that choice.
Within the first 24 hours my chest and back had a terrible rash. The other symptoms developed over the years. I never imagined that the implants were the cause. As I got sicker and sicker, my career went downhill. My illness also put a strain on my marriage. Finally, in 1993, I received a phone call from a friend who had also had implants. She told me that when her implants were removed, they found a cyst the size of a golf ball lodged behind the implant. I began to wonder whether my implants might be causing problems for me too. But I didn’t want to believe it, and I didn’t rush to judgement. When I eventually decided to have the implants removed a year later, the surgeon found that the silicone envelopes and polyurethane foam that had covered the implants had disintegrated inside my body. All that was left was the silicone gel, surrounded by my body’s own scar tissue.
It is difficult and time-consuming to remove broken implants, and the surgery took hours longer than expected. Like most explanted women, I was left with smaller breasts than I had before the implants. So, even though the health risks of implants are a controversial issue, many of my problems were very obviously related to the implants: the rupture, the disintegration of the foam and silicone envelope, the loss of breast tissue, the chest pain, and the rashes. These are what are often called “local complications” – a term that sounds much less serious than the reality.
As I was getting sicker, my doctors kept reassuring me that it was nothing to worry about – after all, aches and pains were a natural part of growing older. But I was in my early 30’s, and I felt like an old woman. When I asked whether I should get my implants removed, my doctors advised against it, saying it would not improve my health, and would probably make me severely depressed. They didn’t understand how terribly ill I felt, and how little I now cared about looking sexy. Finally, I became so sick that I decided I wanted to get rid of any chemical exposure that might be harming me – including my implants. My rheumatologist was still insisting that my implants were unrelated to my illnesses, but after I had my implants removed she diagnosed me as having lupus.
I am well aware that some scientists believe that implants do not cause lupus, chronic fatigue, flu-like symptoms, or the aches and pains that I suffered from. I’m not a scientist, but I am an expert on me, so let me say it simply: I was healthy, I got implants, I got sick, I had them removed, and I got better. Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but since my implants were removed, I have become healthier every year, and now I can work as an actress again. And I know many women with implants who have had similar experiences. And when I look at the studies, I see that most of the studies include very few women who had implants as long as I did. Remember, my lupus was diagnosed more than 10 years after I got implants. If I had been studied 9 years after getting my implants, I would not have been considered sick with lupus, even though I was. We obviously need better studies, studying large numbers of women who have had implants for long periods of time. And their health should be evaluated by objective, open-minded doctors, before and after getting implants.
Even more upsetting for me than my own illness is that my infant daughter became sick, with symptoms that were similar to mine. Is it just coincidence that she became ill after being nursed by a mother with broken silicone implants? There aren’t enough good studies to be able to answer that question either, but I can’t help feeling guilty about it.
Looking back, of course I wish I had never gotten breast implants. Maybe it was a vain choice. Maybe it was a stupid choice. But, because of the lack of information, I wasn’t able to make an informed choice. And I am so sorry that young women today are in the same situation – being told that implants are perfectly safe, when the truth is that they cause many serious problems, and we still don’t know what the long-term risks are.
Mary McDonough recently appeared on Ally McBeal and ER. She has produced and hosted several segments for Entertainment Tonight, the Family Channel, and Cable Health Network. She is a member of the Advisory Board of the National Center for Policy Research (CPR) for Women and Families.