Q and A for breast cancer patients about keeping or reconstructing their breasts



Question:  I have been diagnosed with breast cancer. What are my options so that I can still have breasts?
Question. Should I get silicone or saline implants? Is there a price difference?
Question. My silicone gel breast implant may be leaking. How do I find out if it is leaking, and what should I do if it is?

Q:  I have been diagnosed with breast cancer. What are my options so that I can still have breasts?

A. We’re not doctors and we don’t provide medical advice, but I can tell you what we know based on research and from speaking with many experts and with women who have had breast implants.

If you have been diagnosed with early stage breast cancer (stage I, IIa, IIb, or IIIa) , you probably can keep your breasts, and have a lumpectomy rather than a mastectomy (which removes the entire breast). Early-stage breast cancer patients who undergo a lumpectomy (which removes only the cancer and a small area around it) that is followed by radiation will live just as long as women who have a mastectomy instead.  In fact, the latest research indicates that women with early-stage breast cancer who have a lumpectomy live significantly longer than women of the same age and diagnosis who undergo mastectomy.

Experts recommend a lumpectomy with radiation for most women because it is less traumatic physically and emotionally, and avoids the problems from reconstructing a breast. For more information about this, see a booklet printed by the National Cancer Institute, the NIH, AHRQ, and the National Research Center for Women & Families here.

If you have been diagnosed with a pre-cancerous condition such as Stage 0 breast cancer, including ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) or lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS), it is very unlikely that you need a mastectomy. Women with LCIS do not have breast cancer and most will never get breast cancer. They do not need a mastectomy or even a lumpectomy, although they do need regular mammograms. Most women with DCIS can choose lumpectomy with radiation, rather than mastectomy. For more information, see our booklet here.

For women with breast cancer who want to have breasts, the preferred choice is usually to keep their breasts (rather than remove their breasts and create new ones). Although a lumpectomy can make the breast smaller or change the shape, it will still have the sensation of a natural breast. In contrast, a woman who has a mastectomy with reconstruction, either with implants or with tissue transferred from elsewhere in her body, will have “breast shapes” that do not have any feeling. They are numb. Reconstruction also requires at least two surgeries. Reconstructed breasts may look fuller or “younger” but when the options are explained to them, many women would prefer to have sensation in their breast (or breasts), and would prefer not to have to worry about complications and the need for additional surgery.

If a woman needs to have a mastectomy, because the DCIS has spread throughout the breast or the cancer is large, there are several choices for reconstruction: saline breast implants, silicone breast implants, and moving tissue to create a new breast, such as a TRAM flap (Transverse Rectus Abdominis Myocutaneous flap) or DIEP flap (Deep Inferior Epigastric Perforator flap).

Many plastic surgeons know how to reconstruct breasts using breast implants, but few are skilled at moving tissue (which is called autologous tissue transfer). That is one of the reasons why so many plastic surgeons recommend breast implants.

Saline or Silicone? Some surgeons prefer silicone gel breast implants to saline, because they feel more natural. However, saline breast implants are approved by the FDA as “reasonably safe” and silicone gel implants are not. That is why women getting silicone gel breast implants must agree to be in a study. The goal is to find out how many complications or problems arise in these women in order to decide whether they are safe enough to approve. You would be part of an experiment to find out if the implants are “safe enough” for other women.

One problem with silicone breast implants is that they can break without a patient knowing it. Although less embarrassing than an instant deflation (which is likely with saline), breakage without symptoms is a bad thing, not a good thing. If silicone gel breast implants break and leak, the silicone can get into lymph nodes and travel to the lungs, liver, and brain. No research has been done on those risks, but a study by scientists at the National Cancer Institute found that women with breast implants were twice as likely to die from brain cancer or lung cancer compared to other plastic surgery patients. More research is needed, but those findings are cause for concern.

If saline implants break they are usually easy to remove. If silicone implants break, they can leak and can be extremely difficult and expensive to remove carefully. For that reason, we believe that saline are safer than silicone, even though both have very high complication rates.

Risks. All breast implants, even saline implants, are enveloped in an outer shell made of silicone. The envelope also contains other chemicals and heavy metals, such as microscopic amounts of platinum or tin, which vary during the manufacturing process. Unfortunately, some women have a reaction to those substances. Although silicone is considered “biocompatible” and most people don’t have an immediate allergic or autoimmune response, some people do, and many more develop a response years later.

It’s impossible to predict who will have problems with breast implants, and who won’t. It’s important to know that all implants will eventually break, sometimes within a few months or years, and usually within 10 years. Sometimes women who have a mastectomy get breast implants to replace one breast and to make the other breast look more similar to the replaced breast. However, it’s important to know that either silicone or saline breast implants interfere with mammograms. They show up white on the film, hiding tumors that are above or below.

Alternatives to Implants. An alternative to breast implants is “autologous tissue transfer,” such as the TRAM flap and DIEP flap procedures. These procedures use a woman’s own fat and tissue is used to reconstruct the breast. Many women prefer it to implants because it feels more natural and apparently lasts for a very long time (possibly forever, although the procedure has mostly been done in the last 15 years so it’s impossible to say). However, both the TRAM flap and DIEP flap procedures are more expensive than implants, require an especially skilled surgeon for a good result, and the healing process usually takes at least several months and can be painful. Women are only able to get this surgery if they have enough body fat in their abdomen area or back to form breasts. And, like a breast implant reconstruction, the breast has no feeling. For a woman who has the tissue transferred from her abdomen area (in an operation that has been compared to a “tummy tuck”), there is some loss of muscle in that area. That can be a problem for athletic women, but many other women don’t mind.

The DIEP flap is a similar type of reconstruction but does not remove any muscle. Instead, for the DIEP flap, the surgeon only removes fat and other tissue and makes a small cut in the abdominal muscle. Since no part of the abdominal muscle is removed, patients are able to maintain abdominal strength, making this surgery a better option for most women, especially those who are physically active.

Fortunately, TRAM flaps and DIEP flaps are covered by some health insurance companies. These are complicated surgeries with long recovery times and you would need to find a physician who is very experienced doing these procedures, and we highly recommend asking the doctor to put you in touch with other patients who were happy with the reconstruction.

Q. Should I get silicone or saline implants? Is there a price difference?

A. We believe that saline breast implants are safer than silicone gel implants.

All breast implants have risks. The most common is when the breast gets hard and painful, known as capsular contracture. Many women with implants have that problem after a few years, but it appears to be more common with silicone gel breast implants than saline implants.

Implant surgery usually costs between $5,000-8,000, including the implants and one follow-up visit. Silicone gel breast implants cost about $1,000 more than saline implants.

However, there are a lot of extra expenses that you need to be aware of.

For example, saline implants and silicone implants both have a high complication rate, and almost half the women will need additional surgery to fix implant problems within 3-4 years. That additional surgery often costs $5,000 or more. That is why we suggest that women considering breast implants make sure they have at least $5,000 in their savings that they will save and not spend until they need it for their next implant surgery.

All breast implants will eventually break, but when saline implants break it is obvious (they deflate quickly) and when silicone gel breast implants break, there are often no symptoms at first. Having no symptoms might seem like an advantage, but it is really a disadvantage because silicone can leak out of the tear in the implant, and get to parts of the body where surgeons can’t remove it. Leaking silicone can cause pain and allergic or auto-immune reactions. When it is removed, the breast may be deformed.

Because of concerns about leaking silicone, the FDA warns that women with silicone gel breast implants need to get an MRI to check for leakage after 3 years, and then every other year after that. Unfortunately, breast MRIs cost about $2,000 each, sometimes more. That may seem very expensive, but it is the only accurate way to know if your implants are broken or leaking. If they are leaking, it is important to have them removed immediately.

Given the expense and the risks, why would any woman get silicone gel breast implants? There is one advantage: they feel more like a real breast. Saline implants may not feel as warm as the rest of the body in cold weather. (A figure skater told us they were painfully cold!) And, women with saline implants sometimes say that they make swooshing water noises. Most plastic surgeons prefer silicone gel implants because they tend to look and feel more natural. However, many women tell us that does not make up for the added risks and added costs.

The bottom line: all breast implants will break, all breast implants are likely to cause complications that require additional surgery, and some women will have a bad reaction within a few weeks or months of getting their breast implants. But some implants are safer than others, and since all silicone gel breast implants are more likely to leak as they get older, we believe that saline implants are safer.



Q. My silicone gel breast implant may be leaking. How do I find out if it is leaking, and what should I do if it is?


A. We’re not doctors and we don’t provide medical advice, but I can tell you what we know based on research and from speaking with many experts and with women who have had breast implants.

The best way to tell if a silicone breast implant has ruptured or is leaking is to have an MRI with a breast coil. Unfortunately MRIs are expensive, but necessary because a mammogram can not accurately detect a rupture or leak. And, the squeezing from a mammogram can cause a broken implant to leak. A sonogram can be useful but only if the radiologist is specially trained to detect implant ruptures and leaks — and very few are. That’s why an MRI is the best strategy, although that also needs to be read by someone who has experience looking for a rupture or leak in a silicone breast implant.

FDA scientists found that by the time women have implants for at least 10 years, at least one of them has usually ruptured. However, implants often break sooner, sometimes even within the first year. For women with saline breast implants, a broken implant is obvious because it usually deflates quickly. However, when silicone gel breast implants break, there are often no symptoms at all for a year or more. Years later, there are several symptoms that many women report: the breast changes shape or gets smaller, lumps or bumps may appear on the breast or nearby, some women complain of a burning pain, and some women experience symptoms of autoimmune disease, such as joint pain, memory loss, confusion, or chronic fatigue.

Many plastic surgeons believe that silicone is “perfectly safe.” However, experts who have read the research agree that a ruptured silicone gel breast implant should be removed as soon as possible, especially if it is leaking. The MRI can help the plastic surgeon know where the problem areas are so he or she can avoid leakage during removal. Removing broken implants soon means there is less chance that the silicone will leak outside the scar tissue that surrounds the implant. It is important to have the procedure performed by a plastic surgeon who is very experienced in removing leaking silicone implants. Old or broken silicone gel breast implants should be removed “en bloc.” This means that the entire implant and the entire scar tissue capsule surrounding it are all removed together. This makes it easier to remove any silicone that may have leaked from the broken gel implant and also helps remove silicone or other chemicals that may have seeped out from the silicone envelope into the scar capsule.

A study conducted by Dr Noreen Aziz from the National Cancer Institute and Dr Frank Vasey from University of South Florida found that most women who had rheumatological symptoms (such as joint pain) felt significantly better after getting their breast implants removed and not replaced. Those who didn’t get their implants removed usually got worse. Those who had them removed and replaced (with silicone implants or saline) implants did not get better.

For examples of women who had less pain and other symptoms after their implants were removed, see the personal stories on our website at http://www.breastimplantinfo.org/personal-stories/. You also might want to check out www.explantation.com to hear from women who have had their implants removed and not replaced. Many felt healthier, happier, and more attractive afterwards.

We hope this information is helpful. For more information, check out http://www.breastimplantinfo.org/breast-reconstruction/surgical-alternatives/ or feel free to write to us at info@center4research.org / info@stopcancerfund.org


The comments and statements of the National Research Center for Women & Families are believed and intended to be accurate, and where applicable, based on scientific literature. NRC’s statements do not constitute medical diagnoses, medical advice, plans of treatment, or legal opinion, and we are not responsible for the use or application of this information. All medical information should be reviewed with your health care practitioner.

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