JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Tens of thousands of women say their breast implants are poisoning them. But their medical insurance won’t pay for surgery to remove them, despite recent research that shows a possible link between breast implants and autoimmune disorders.
Susie Peeler is recovering in her Jacksonville home, three weeks after paying out of pocket to have her breast implants removed.
“Yesterday was a turning point for me. I felt the most like myself,” Peeler told Action News Jax, WSB-TV's sister station in Jacksonville.
A month ago, Peeler felt so sick she wasn’t sure she could go through with having her breast implants removed.
“You think, am I even healthy enough to have the surgery? You know what I mean? Am I going to die on the operating table? That’s how bad we felt,” said Peeler.
When Peeler says “we,” she’s talking about thousands of women just like her choosing to surgically remove their implants because they believe the silicone is poisoning them.
Both silicone gel- and saline-filled implants have silicone shells.
A private Facebook group now has more than 60,000 women who say they’re experiencing what they call Breast Implant Illness.
“The chronic fatigue, the chronic inflammation, nosebleeds, headaches, dry eyes, sores in my mouth, nodules on my thyroid, Hashimoto’s... I felt like I was dying,” said Peeler.
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At least two major studies published last year indicate a possible connection between breast implants and autoimmune disorders.
In 2017, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration put out a warning that people with breast implants have a risk of developing a specific cancer called Breast Implant-Associated Anaplastic Large Cell Lymphoma.
In 2016, the World Health Organization recognized it as a diagnosis.
Although rare, the lymphoma is significantly more common in women with textured-surface implants.
In December, manufacturer Allergan pulled its textured implants off the market in Europe, but not in the U.S.
Plastic surgeon Dr. Ankit Desai just referred a patient to get tested for breast implant-associated lymphoma the day of our interview.
“The running theory about what causes this breast implant-associated cancer is bacterial,” said Desai. “They’ve identified the type of bacteria that is in the little grooves of the rough surface.”
Some patients choose textured implants instead of smooth ones because the rough texture helps keep the devices from slipping out of place. For example, a teardrop-shaped implant would look less aesthetic if it rotated or flipped.
Desai said he’s a believer in breast implant associated lymphoma, but he’s not sure whether breast implant illness is real.
“There’s no scientific evidence to support that it’s real, breast implant sickness. Now, do some women get better having their implants removed? They do. And so, I don’t know definitely, one way or the other,” said Desai.
Health insurance companies rarely pay to remove breast implants, leaving women with a choice: pay thousands out of pocket or keep the implants they believe are making them sick.
“They’ll say, everything stems from an elective surgery, OK? But that doesn’t mean no is no,” said insurance broker Daniel Tuchmann.
Action News Jax asked Tuchmann what would have to change for insurance companies to start covering explant surgeries.
“The biggest thing would be medical studies that show a definitive link to breast implants causing these chronic health conditions or autoimmune disorders,” said Tuchmann.
That’s happening right now.
This month, the Plastic Surgery Foundation will fund research into illnesses and complications that could be related to breast implants.
The industry is also collecting long term data in a National Breast Implant Registry.
Next month, an FDA panel will meet about possible risks of breast implants.
“I see the light at the end of the tunnel, so I’m happy about that,” said Peeler.
After years of feeling run down, Peeler said she’s hopeful for a healthy future full of adventure.
“Definitely life on the water for retirement, for sure and feeling able to do that, and enjoying it,” said Peeler.
She also plans to push her insurance to reimburse her for the surgery.
If you have been diagnosed with Breast Implant-Associated Anaplastic Large Cell Lymphoma and your insurance won’t pay for explant, or you’re uninsured, this patient assistance fund may be able to help.
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