Breast implants linked with rare cancer, just how great is the risk?

New research undertaken in the Netherlands has examined the incidence of women with breast implants developing a rare form of cancer. Although a link has been identified, the risks are extremely low, but here’s what you need to know.

The study looked at the likelihood of developing a rare cancer called anaplastic large cell lymphoma (ALCL) which is a cancer of the immune system. For women who have breast implants, this cancer usually originates in the scar tissue around the implant. Despite forming in the breast tissue, this is not breast cancer in its traditional form, it is a type of lymphoma.

According to the study, the chance of developing this type of lymphoma is small as the disease is very rare. It increases for women who have had breast implants, but even the increased risk is still small compared with the likelihood of developing other cancers:

  • For women aged 50, the chance is 1 in every 35,000
  • For women aged 70, the chance is 1 in every 12,000
  • For women aged 75, the chance is 1 in every 7,000

Despite this low risk, it is recommended that women who are considering breast implants are informed at their consultations about the increased risk of developing this type of lymphoma, so that they are making decisions when fully informed of the potential risks.

A rare form of cancer

The rarity of this cancer means that it was hard to source enough data to look at trends. Researchers would typically start with a self-selected modification such as breast implants and then look at how many women who have opted for this surgery go on to develop a particular condition. This way, they can begin to see if any patterns develop.

As ALCL is so rare, this wasn’t possible, so researchers took a different approach. They looked at women who had been diagnosed with the ALCL condition, then explored what proportion of them had previously opted for breast implants. They found that of the 43 women with the condition, 32 of them had breast implants, which suggested that there was a strong link.

What does this mean for me if I am considering implants?

This research does not mean that women who have or are considering breast implants, need to worry about a heightened risk of developing cancer. The important thing to remember is that although breast implants are linked with a greater chance of developing ALCL, the chances of developing the condition in the first place is very low, as it is one of the rarest cancers.

It is important that women (with and without implants) are very aware of the breasts and visit a GP if any changes are noticed. Symptoms of ALCL include swelling or pain in the area of your breast implant that does not desist, so if you notice this then make an appointment to speak to a specialist as soon as you can. It might be nothing to worry about – but the sooner a problem is found, the greater the chance is that it can be fixed.

For further guidance, here’s the latest position from BAPRAS, the British Association of Plastic Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgeons, of which I’m a member.