health

'Last year, I found out my breast implants had given me cancer. This is what I wish I knew.'

I'd never heard of BIA ALCL, or Breast Implant-Associated Anaplastic Large Cell Lymphoma, until the 24th of October last year.

It's a very rare but very real form of cancer that affects the immune system of women with breast implants

I was a 27-year-old group fitness instructor, working full-time in medical bookings. I lived a very active, healthy life - until I started noticing my fatigue increasing.

WATCH: Talk to your family about their health history. Post continues below.


Video via Mamamia

Eventually I became so fatigued after teaching fitness classes I felt I needed a nap. I was also experiencing really bad brain fog. 

I didn't know what was wrong, and I put it down to a busy lifestyle and being tired. But I decided to have an ultrasound on my chest as I had been getting shortness of breath and chest tightness during exercising, and also sporadically while resting or sleeping. 

I wasn't sure if this was childhood asthma returning or something else, but I honestly wasn't expecting what they found.

The sonographer told me I had a large pocket of fluid under my left breast implant, but this was usually nothing to worry about and could easily be drained. 

I decided to have this drained the next day just to get it sorted. The radiologist on shift was also a colleague I worked with, so she drained the fluid and sent it off to be tested for anything sinister - but again, we weren't expecting anything. 

The next day, while at work, a colleague passed me a fax which happened to be my cytology results. In big bold letters under my name it said 'malignancy - BIA ALCL - Breast Implant-Associated Anaplastic Large Cell Lymphoma.' 

Apparently, this cancer usually takes years to form after implants. For me, it was six years.

ADVERTISEMENT

I cannot explain what it felt like being at work and finding out I had an incredibly rare form of cancer, especially being so healthy and young. To my surprise, the GP wasn't exactly sure what to do either - he'd never come across it before.

I requested a PET scan and a referral to a surgeon. I wanted the implants removed ASAP. 

The next week was a whirlwind of emotions while I tried to convince my partner, my family and those around me that I was fine and everything would be okay.

Disappointingly, my original surgeon wouldn't do the explant surgery but I found an amazing surgeon who was able to get me in the following week for removal of the breast implants and surrounding tissue. I was also booked into an oncologist and had a PET scan to see if the cancer had spread anywhere else.

Luckily for me, with this diagnosis, patients don't often need chemotherapy, and removal of the implants usually removes the cancer. I had three more drainages on my breast to remove built-up fluid after the surgery, which you can see in the image below.

Image: Supplied. 

As Christmas Eve rolled around, I had to go back for a second PET scan to see if the results were clear again. 

Over Christmas and New Years I anxiously waited for the results. I then had another PET scan in February, and was finally given the all-clear in March. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Today now marks three months since remission. I'm telling my story because I want to inform other women of all ages to be aware, and that the signs and symptoms of this cancer aren't always obvious. I never had lumps, I never had redness, I didn't have typical pain, I never had a misshaped breast, all of which are symptoms of this lymphoma.

Listen to Mamamia Out Loud, Mamamia's podcast with what women are talking about this week. Post continues below.

Initially I felt silly requesting an ultrasound as the GP said it was 'just anxiety', and I was 'too young and healthy'. But I can never thank myself enough for pursuing this, because otherwise who knows when this cancer would have shown itself?

What I also want women to know is that it is not just one particular brand of implants that's in the spotlight. It's not just the textured implants, it can be any implant - and it doesn't matter how long you've had them. Yes, it is incredibly rare -  they say about 1 in 30,000 - but it can still happen, anytime from one year after surgery to many years later. 

I don't regret having implants, as they served a purpose at that stage in my life, but what I do wish is that surgeons and manufacturers of all breast implants put more information and awareness out to current and prospective patients. 

I was never again contacted by my original surgeon after my one month post-op check in, and was never told by him that I needed regular breast ultrasounds. I never knew what to look for other than pain or misshapen breasts.

My wish is to ask women to get their breasts checked by ultrasound or mammogram regularly, and to listen to your instincts. Don't ever let anybody make you second guess your symptoms.

It's better to be safe and cautious than to be in the position that myself and other women have found ourselves in. 

I consider myself incredibly lucky that I didn't need to go through chemotherapy, but it's been an eye-opening experience and one that has completely changed my outlook on life. I'm now learning to love my body for being so strong and getting me through this, even though I might not be the "perfect" cup size or have the body that I once may have dreamt of. 

What matters is that I'm now healthy and cancer free.

The above reflects the opinion and experience of the author only. For personalised advice, consult a medical professional.

Feature image: Getty.

00:00 / ???