One woman's story of how her breast implant slowly stole her health.
Hilary Freeth grew uneven breasts during puberty. One breast grew to a size A cup and the other to a size G cup.
“As you can imagine, this was the source of a lot of insecurity for me,” she said.
“People would catch sight of my prothesis poking out of my top and ask; ‘what’s that?’ and I would be absolutely mortified!”
Naturally, when she found out that she had made the top of the list for reconstructive surgery through the public health system, she was overjoyed. At 19, she received a breast reduction on one side and a textured implant inserted into the other However, Hilary says it did not take long for problems to appear.
She claims the first sign was her hip giving out, then there were other symptoms such as hot and swollen breast tissue, chronic fatigue, brain fog, muscle and joint pain, titinis, food allergies, and numbness of limbs began to develop.
By mid 2018, Hilary says her health had deteriorated so badly that she had to quit her job in Auckland and move back to Christchurch, where she could be closer to family. Hilary’s mum was very concerned when she saw her, but then she had a ‘lightbulb moment’. She asked: “What if it could be the implant?”.
Convincing the medical world, however, would not be easy. This is Hilary’s story of Breast Implant Illness and her battle to be taken seriously.
Early this year Hilary had her implant removed. She says the explant surgery gave her her life back, but it didn’t come cheap, costing her $23,000. She managed to raise just over seven thousand dollars in three months through her Givealittle page, but the rest she had to cover herself.
Seeking private help:
Hilary chose Dr Julian Lofts to perform her explant surgery after he was recommended in a Facebook support group for women who suffer from Breast Implant Illness.
Dr Lofts, who has his own practice in Auckland, has noticed in the last few years the numbers of women coming to see him for explant surgery has increased. He says he already has “three patients on his list this week” who want to talk about removing their implants.
“In the past this used to be unusual unless they had a rupture or a capsular contracture, but now they’re coming in because they’re worried. They’re worried because they might have symptoms of BII or ALCL (Anaplastic Large Cell Lymphoma cancer)” he says.
Dr Lofts thinks it’s important for New Zealand to have its own breast registry like Australia to track the number of implants and any problems.
So far, Dr. Lofts is seeing good results from explanting, with many of his patients reporting that their symptoms have gone or subsided.
“When the patients are satisfied or happy at the end of the procedure you know you’ve done the right thing."
He says Breast Implant Illness is a complex issue and more should be done to better understand it.
“We just don’t know about how the body truly responds to a foreign body like an implant."
He hopes that all surgeons in New Zealand will mention Breast Implant lllness in their discussions with patients who are seeking implants, so they get “informed consent”.
The problem: Lack of information means BII isn’t yet acknowledged as a real illness.
Overseas, the debate over the safety of implants has been going on for over 30 years. Meanwhile frustrated women have taken their health into their own hands. Over 90,000 women world wide have joined the Facebook page ‘Breast Implant Illness: Healing By Nicole’ where members share photos of their Breast Implant Illness symptoms, explanted implants and their recommendations for trusted explant surgeons. Five thousand women are also part of Facebook page; ‘Breast Implant Illness Australia and New Zealand’, which is where Hilary found help.
Plastic surgeon Dr. Chris Porter is a specialist Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeon based in Christchurch. He considers Breast Implant Illness to be a low risk that effects a small percentage of the total number of women with implants.
He says it’s difficult to prove whether Breast Implant Illness is even a physical problem because symptoms could be put down to a psychological cause. He says that when women report feeling better after explanting, like Hilary did, this could simply be put down to simply a placebo effect.
He also stresses that pinpointing the exact cause of Breast Implant Illness is difficult as “people who have chronic stress or anxiety can have a constellation of physical issues as well”.
Where does New Zealand stand?
The Ministry of Health declined a request to be interviewed but in statement said; “all therapeutic products have risks and benefits and it is important for anyone considering any surgery to be fully informed prior to that surgery taking place, and to seek appropriate clinical advice from their surgeon.”
It also stated there is no requirement yet for medical devices in New Zealand to be assessed before they enter our market, instead they “monitor the safety information supplied from overseas regulators”.
The Ministry of Health wouldn't say if it has any plans to start a breast registry in the future.
The MOH also did not confirm whether it is specifically concerned about the risk of Breast Implant Illness but when asked made the following statement:
“The issue of surgical mesh, as published on the Medsafe website, is an example of where an issue was identified, information was gathered from other regulators and adverse event reports from New Zealand, and action was taken under the Medicines Act 1981".
According to Medsafe, which is part of the Ministry of Health, by 2008 they were “sufficiently concerned” that they had conducted their review of “adverse events associated with the use of surgical mesh”. But a timeline on the Medsafe website shows it took nine years from the first complaints until some of the mesh products were taken off the market in New Zealand.
In the last 10 years there have been 447 claims made to ACC for injuries related to breast implants. The most common reason for rejection was "no injury". This means if a claim was made citing Breast Implant Illness as the cause it would have been rejected on the grounds that it cannot be proven as a physical injury.
Despite the hefty price tag, Hilary says she is grateful that she was in a financial position to afford the surgery. She says a lot of women are vulnerable because they can't afford that kind of money and she claims some end up “stuck with those toxic bags in their bodies.”
She says more needs to be done to better understand the illness and support women who believe they are suffering from Breast Implant Illness.
Hilary stresses that this isn’t something that can be swept under the rug and put down to “dramatic women” or a “placebo effect”. She says Kiwi women need to be listened to and taken seriously.
"We have to talk about these issues otherwise they won't change and I just don't want other women to go through it. That’s why I’m sharing my story," says Hilary.