Health And Wellness

Breast Implant Illness Almost Killed Me

Photo: BeholdingEye, wutzkoh, Reshetnikov_art, Melissa Queiroz's Images | Canva 
Toxic Breast Implant

I never expected to become part of one in every eight women diagnosed with breast cancer, but I did.

I was thirty-five years old, a mother of four children, and a writer. I found a mass on my right breast during a self-exam. My doctor ordered an ultrasound and mammogram. Because I had dense breast tissue, as 40 percent of women do, the mass appeared to be benign. 

I was initially relieved. However, as the days passed after I got the “all clear” news, I grew increasingly unsettled. I sought a second opinion. The doctor did a biopsy of the mass. Three weeks later, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, becoming part of the 9 percent of patients diagnosed under age forty-five.

It's cliché but true: Being diagnosed with cancer felt like the rug was pulled out from under me.

I went from denial to dissociating, to sobbing in the bathroom. I didn’t have a family history of breast cancer, my genetic tests were negative, I had never smoked, I rarely drank, and I exercised daily. Why me?

  

I was so eager to put cancer behind me, as quickly as possible. I met with a breast surgeon and a plastic surgeon. I was a candidate for direct-to-implant surgery, meaning, I would go into the OR with my natural breasts, and come out with breast implants. This seemed like the easiest, fastest option. I counted down the weeks until my surgery, anxious and desperate. The sooner the cancer cells came out, the quicker I could resume my busy life.

I figured that once I was older, like in my fifties or sixties, I would eventually choose what’s known as “going flat.” I was simply too young to be flat-chested, I decided. So on a balmy August day, I walked into the hospital and got prepped for surgery, watching the doctor mark up my chest with a Sharpie.

When I awoke, I was in excruciating pain, like 10 out of 10 on the “how bad is it” scale. The nurse told me, yes, direct-to-implant surgery tends to be pretty painful. I went home the next day — and took about four full weeks to recover.

My new breasts looked amazing. I often joked with friends that I would one day be the hottest old lady in the nursing home. My breasts were perky, firm, and prominent — the ideal chest. After surgery, I had follow-ups, including with oncology. It was determined that no further treatment was needed.

RELATED: 13 Breast Cancer Risk Factors You Need To Know About (5 Of Which You Can Change)

The cancer was gone. However, my troubles were just beginning.

My right shoulder blade hurt all the time no matter what I did. I tried yoga, stretching, a different pillow, ice, heat, and medications. The pain would ebb and flow but it never went away. I was always aware of it. I eventually had an MRI which revealed nothing.

About two-and-a-half years after I got my breast implants, I woke up one spring morning. My feet felt like bricks. I looked down at them, and my toes were a smoky shade of purple. This continued for a month, and the podiatrist wasn’t sure what it was.

I also begin having adverse food reactions. Foods I normally enjoyed such as coffee, berries, salmon, chocolate, and more all caused me to feel myriad symptoms that mimicked a moderate allergic reaction. There seemed to be no pattern. I could be fine for a day or two, then sick. I worked with a dietitian, and it seemed I had a histamine intolerance. Something was causing my body to be flooded with histamine.

I was also exhausted and dragging through my days. I looked like I was pregnant, my stomach protruding. My skin was tinged yellow. I was, for the first time in my life, depressed — and subsequently anxious because I felt depressed. My eyes, skin, and hair were extremely dry.

I attended multiple medical appointments, including several specialists. I had scans, labs, and exams. I had twenty-plus bottles of prescriptions for the symptoms, none of which helped. Nothing definitive was discovered, and one doctor suggested that this was “in my head” and that maybe I should see a counselor. (I already was in therapy.)  

About three years after I got my breast implants, I woke up to my heart racing and pounding. I knew something was wrong with me, and I had my husband take me to the emergency room. A CT scan revealed I had a pulmonary embolism. I was sent home with blood thinners.

It was around this time that I hit rock bottom. No one knew what was wrong with me, and each day, I felt sicker and sicker. This is when I begged God to let me die in my sleep. I was desperate to no longer suffer.

RELATED: I Got Breast Cancer Twice Before I Turned 40 — The Signs Many Women Miss

A few days later, I did an online search of my symptoms, and something very interesting resulted: Breast Implant Illness (BII).

I went down the rabbit hole of research on BII and found a social media group of women who shared story after story that was strikingly similar to mine. I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that I had BII.

   

   

My husband was working from home at the time, and I burst into his office, hyper and happy. I announced to him that I knew what was wrong with me, and I was, 100 percent, getting my breast implants removed as quickly as possible. I called my doctor, set up an appointment, and began planning to have my implants removed.

As I awaited my explant surgery date, I continued to research. I also found a BII symptom checklist. I was astounded when I counted: twenty-nine symptoms in total. I dared to imagine that even if surgery only made me 10 percent better, it would be worth it. I felt like a zombie. I was barely able to function. I wasn’t even forty years old, but I felt like I was ninety.

RELATED: I Have Breast Cancer: How One Woman's Facebook Announcement Saved My Life

When I woke up from my explant surgery, it felt as if a literal weight had been removed from my chest.

I took a deep breath and started crying. A nurse rushed to my side asking what was wrong, and I told her that nothing was wrong! Everything was right. I instantly felt better — free from the chemical bags that had been sewn in by my lungs and heart.

I know some people can’t imagine being happy and whole without breasts: whether those be natural or “plastic.” Yes, my flat chest has taken some getting used to; however, I’ve chosen to recognize all the perks. I can sleep on my stomach, I can hug people, and I can lift weights easily. There is nothing in my way. I am happy to report that all twenty-nine symptoms are gone.

My experience with breast implant illness isn’t rare. In October of 2021, the FDA placed a boxed warning on implants. Various health organizations have shared studies and professional articles on breast implant illness and its possible effects on patients, whether those patients are breast cancer survivors like me or those looking to “enhance” their chest with implants.

   

   

The reality is that breast implants are foreign objects that can cause a cascade of poor health effects. Breast implants aren’t natural, and the body knows this. I am forever grateful for the women who shared their stories, and thus, saved my life. I am also thankful to be here, sharing my story, and hopefully saving someone else.

RELATED: 10 Things Your Breasts Are Trying To Tell You About Your Health

Rachel Garlinghouse is a writer residing in the St. Louis area. She is a two-time breast cancer survivor and type 1 diabetic who has committed much of her time to helping women advocate for their physical and mental health needs. She has nearly one thousand articles to her name, and she's appeared on CNN, MSNBC, NPR, CBS, and GMA.