Do Breast Implants Actually Increase Lymphoma Risk?

New guidance from the FDA identifies a small but heightened risk of cancer for women with breast implants. While this finding may be alarming, it’s important to understand the real-world risk. 

The statement comes as an update to the FDA’s 2011 notice, in which the agency identified a possible association between breast implants and a heightened risk of developing a rare cancer known as anaplastic large cell lymphoma.

What is anaplastic large cell lymphoma?

According to cancer charity McMillan, anaplastic large cell lymphoma, or ALCL, is a rare form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. These kinds of cancers affect the lymphatic system, which is a key part of our immune response.

The condition occurs when white blood cells, or T-cell lymphocytes, begin to divide in an uncontrolled way. These rapidly dividing cells can then build up in areas like the lungs, skin or — in this case — scar tissue around a breast implant.

At first, ALCL can be hard to detect because it has fairly innocuous symptoms, such as a loss of appetite and fatigue. However, symptoms may offer clues as to where the ALCL is clustered.

For instance, if it the cancerous cells are concentrated in the lungs, a patient may have difficulty breathing or experience a persistent cough. In terms of infiltrating the chest cavity, most cases of ALCL come to light when tenderness and swelling occur, or there is reason to suspect a build-up of fluid due to pressure in the chest.

For the purposes of analyzing these findings, it’s important to emphasize that ALCL isn’t a cancer of the breast tissue. While individuals may be more likely to die of breast cancer if they have a breast implant — largely due to an inability to detect that cancer early — there is no convincing evidence that breast implants significantly increase breast cancer rates for most women.

Why are breast implants a risk factor for ALCL?

The exact reasons aren’t yet known, but to date the FDA has found 359 reports of ALCL in women with breast implants — a significant rise in the baseline rate of incidents in the general population. Put simply, this means that the FDA believes there is enough evidence to substantiate a link between breast implants and a heightened risk of ALCL.

Specifically, scientists believe that ALCL usually develops in the scar tissue following surgery. It is not yet understood exactly why the breast implant procedure might trigger ALCL, but scientists have suggested that the trauma of the procedure could initiate the rapid action of T-cells in women who were already susceptible.

The good news is that ALCL is usually treatable, and deaths from the condition are uncommon. In fact, oftentimes removing the implant — along with the problematic scar tissue — can be enough to put a patient into remission. In cases where the cancer has developed in the lymph nodes, or where it is difficult to remove the cancer, rounds of chemotherapy and radiotherapy may also be advised, but the prognosis is generally good.

What does this mean for women with breast implants?

The FDA’s central message is, actually, that this news doesn’t change all that much — at least not for patients. In fact, the FDA makes it clear that while women should educate themselves about breast implants and ALCL, the relative risks and potential outcomes of the procedure remain unchanged.

The notice for patients does make a few points, however:

Educate yourself about breast implants before agreeing to surgery. Breast implants approved in the U.S. can be filled with either saline or with silicone gel. They come in different sizes and shapes and have either smooth or textured surfaces (shells). Additional information is available on FDA’s Breast Implants website.

Although it is rare, BIA-ALCL appears to develop more frequently in women with textured implants than in women with smooth-surfaced implants. Before getting breast implants, make sure to talk to your health care provider about the benefits and risks of textured-surface vs. smooth-surfaced implants.

To give an idea of the difference between the implants and incident rates of cancer: of the 231 cases that actually included information about the implant type, 203 were of the textured variety while 28 were smooth. It’s not yet understood why the difference in rates occurs and whether that difference will hold up if/when researchers have more data in the future. Additional study might allow clinicians deeper insight into whether ALCL is more likely for some women than others.

Essentially, the recommendation simply reinforces that this rare form of cancer should not be an undue worry for women. To put it in some perspective, the New York Times quotes figures from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons detailing that “290,000 women in the United States had implants for breast enlargement in 2016, and 109,000 received them for reconstruction after breast cancer.”

As such, the proportion of women affected by ALCL is incredibly small. While, admittedly, some cases may go undocumented, we can say with fair confidence that, for the vast majority of women, ALCL is unlikely to pose a problem.

What’s more, even if a breast augmentation or reconstruction does result in ALCL, women can safeguard their health by following their after-care plans.These routine check-ups can also detect any abnormal growths or problems with silicone implants themselves.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.

47 comments

Marie W
Marie Wabout a year ago

Thanks for sharing.

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heather g
heather g1 years ago

I'm surprised that there hasn't been much progress in this area - still only a few types available (and I'm talking about those ladies who have had a mastectomy) not the ones who want to look like a 'cartoon character'.

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Dot A
Dot A1 years ago

;+) When the male gender encourages the objects of their desire to have small, petite, or averaged sized breasts, then we're making progress. As long as the image of sexy females with generous bosoms represents the desirable mate, and folks like Steve Harvey and so many others dance around like excited love happy boys, then women will observe the edge that 'boobs' get, whether it's deserved or not, because men aren't evaluating women's character or personality when selecting their compliment. Only with time does the male find his mate truly beautiful as her inner self is illuminated over time. Then he may find that he's truly stuck with a real BOOB. Authentic beauty is deeper than flesh.

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Philippa Powers
Philippa Powers1 years ago

We must learn to love the bodies that God gave us. To implant something is an open invitation to disaster.

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Jennifer H
Jennifer H1 years ago

Totally agree with Marianne C. Couldn't have said it better.

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Katie K
Katie K1 years ago

and parents are buying their daughters a set for a graduation present...how's that for helping with your own girl child's self esteem I have multiple friends who silicone implants have burst and are now very ill and the saline implants aren't all that either

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Dot A
Dot A1 years ago

I can pretty much guarantee you that if men preferred the petite breasts women would not put these objects in their bodies. Until women have equality in this world I predict many females will do whatever possible to gain leverage. Big boobs in modern culture represents power to the feminine gender. I think many women who chose to put such foreign substances into their chests know the complications and take the risk to gain an edge. Sometimes with a sad regret. Body image for women is still a horrible injustice. Just look at the bloated males with bloated bank accounts who seek only model shaped arm trophies. For many women the false sense of security that men with big bucks dangle before them, eventually teach the sorry lesson of self-acceptance is where their power lives. Women don't need to stick out silicon boobs to live a good life. This article is another reason for women to clear their minds and bodies from "obstacles" of wellness and natural happiness.

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william M
william Miller1 years ago

Thanks

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John B
John B1 years ago

Thanks Steve for sharing the excellent info and supportive links. Scary.

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Anne M
Anne Moran1 years ago

Eventually,, when you're older,, like in your 70s-80s-90s,, the last thing you're gonna wanna drag around with you,, are large breasts,, believe me... - Unless it's for reconstructive surgery after mastectomy,, I can understand why women would want breast implants.. - But if it's to attract men,, you're fooling yourself,, because eventually, it will become a novelty, and he'll just go on to someone else... - Guys who only go after big boobs,, aren't worth it anyway... - Good luck with that..

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