Jun 19

Breast Implant Illness

I’ve been sitting at the counter, at my favorite coffee shop, for the last two hours trying to figure out how to start this post. I’ve gone through a full serving of turmeric ginger tea, and watched countless people walk by outside dodging the spitting drizzle. And I’m still at a loss.  

I’m sure you’ve heard the famous saying, “A good story deserves a sequel”.  Nope, you haven’t. I just made that up. Maybe a better description of what I’ve just experienced would be, “Part II: What in the heck just happened, and are you kidding me?!”  I honestly didn’t think I would be back to this place of writing and sharing about my health, but once again, here I am staring at the blinking cursor on my screen. 

Around a year and a half ago, I started noticing some strange symptoms that seemed to come out of nowhere. I began experiencing tightness in my chest, a constant lump in my upper esophagus, shortness of breath, hot flashes, occasional episodes of dizziness, random heart palpitations, anxiety when I first woke up in the morning, continual clearing of my throat, and a dull headache at the base of my skull. As most of us women do, I chalked it up to the joys of menopause and getting older. 

However, I decided to see an allergist, thinking I was sensitive to gluten or pollen, who told me I wasn’t allergic to anything, but in fact was suffering from acid reflux. (I know, we’re tidering on TMI already and you’re only a couple of paragraphs in. Sorry, buckle up. We’re going full into the ditch on this one…) 

I sort of accepted that answer about acid reflux, but in the back of my mind it still didn’t make sense. Something else was going on. The good news was this prompted me to see a functional medicine doctor to help reset my gut, naturally, from the trauma it went through during chemotherapy almost six years ago, and to start detoxing from said chemo. 

Over the next few months I began noticing more symptoms: brain fog, hair loss, random swelling of my ankle joint and throbbing pain in an arthritic toe. Then the dry eye symptoms started. My eyes, literally overnight, became extremely red, dry, and painful, to the point where I couldn’t wear my contacts. My wonderful optometrist got the redness calmed down for a little bit, but she was stumped as it related to why I suddenly developed extremely dry eyes. At this point, I was pretty sure I knew what the culprit was. 

While I was on this journey of recognizing these symptoms and simultaneously stuffing them, telling myself to suck it up, and get on with life as “normal”, someone close to me was going through her own difficult health journey. I watched as she struggled with symptoms much more severe than mine and at every turn, no one could give her answers. One physician told her she just needed to see a psychiatrist. She knew she wasn’t crazy, and after some research and persistence, she realized she was suffering from breast implant illness. 

What in the world was that? 

It was as if a lightbulb went off in my head. Could it be? Could my body be reacting to the implants I chose to put in after my double mastectomy? Oh. My. Goodness. 

First of all, what is breast implant illness? It’s a collection of symptoms that can occur in people with breast implants. It’s not a very well-understood condition, and it is often misdiagnosed because the symptoms could be easily pinned on other ailments. From what I’ve learned, it doesn’t matter if someone has silicone or saline implants, both types can cause this illness. 

I mentioned my theory to my functional medicine physician and he recommended I test for heavy metals in my system. That urinalysis test found that I had elevated levels of antimony, barium, cesium, mercury, and thallium. He said that these were all elements that are potentially found in silicone implants (or saline implants with silicone shells), and based on the type of test I did, it showed that I was being continuously exposed to these toxins on a daily basis. The only other way I would have these high levels of heavy metals in my system would be if I were a road construction worker or if I was melting lead and making figurines in my basement…everyday. That was an easy, NOPE. 

At that point my husband and I made the decision that the implants needed to come out, ASAP.. 

I scheduled my consultation with a plastic surgeon that specializes in breast explant surgeries a month later, and I made my surgery date one month after that, December 20th, 2022. I am so grateful that I did. The surgeon found that one of the implants was grossly ruptured and leaking silicone into the tissue capsule that it had originally been inserted in. Not only was it ruptured, but based on the bright yellow coloring of the implant, (it looked like Pac Man and normally an implant is a clearish-white color) it had been leaking for years. 

Oh. crap. 

I was mortified, but relieved all at the same time. I felt justified for my “crazy hypochondriac thinking” and knew that my body, and God, were very clearly speaking to me about what was concealed and lurking inside my chest. I wasn’t a wacko. Something was making me sick and I’m grateful that I didn’t give up until I found out what it was. 

Here is the crazy thing. Immediately after I woke up from surgery I felt physically lighter and I could breathe. The constant, throbbing headache was gone. The lump in my throat and the burning in my lungs was gone. And the tightness in my chest was, you guessed it…..GONE. 

Just a few weeks after the explant surgery, I was amazed at the return of my energy level, the moisture in my skin, the (slow but sure) decreasing dryness in my eyes, and the fact that my nails are growing like crazy! My body is detoxing, and I know that it will take time for a few of the other symptoms to improve, but I believe that God is RESTORING me and I am reclaiming my health once and for all. 

Due to the fact that I had zero breast tissue left after my mastectomy, (that’s a good thing for a breast cancer survivor) we opted to have the surgeon perform an aesthetic flat closure, or AFC. So I am flat, flat, flat! (Like all I got left are my pec muscles, people, FLAT.) The AFC procedure is one where the result is a smooth, flat contour of the chest with no extra skin folds or flaps. If you’d like to read more about this procedure, this is a short blog post written by a plastic surgeon (not mine), who performs AFCs, that describes it well.

Because the implants were under my pectoralis muscle, my recovery was a little longer. Not only did my body need to heal from the new scars, but the muscles had been repaired and I was not able to reach over my head or lift anything heavier than 10 pounds for 4-6 weeks. My husband and kids deserve major gold stars for holding down the fort and pretty much running Christmas like North Pole bosses. Their servant hearts afforded me the luxury of cozying up on the couch, sporting my matching front-zip tracksuit, and wielding a bottle of Tylenol and ice packs.

I’ll admit that as happy as I was to have the explant surgery behind me, I realized I needed to grieve the fact that I had lost my breasts for a second time. That is not something you think, as a woman, you will ever have to experience.  But for those of us who are breast cancer survivors, I’m learning that it can sometimes be our reality. After I had my quick pity party and honored those feelings, I decided to love the new “look”, and I realized that I actually feel SO good in my own skin. 

I battled whether to share all of this publicly, and I’ve prayed about it a LOT. Because honestly, I didn’t want to be the girl who is constantly talking about her breasts. Hello, weird! (I mean really God, couldn’t you have called me to be an advocate for lost puppies or saving endangered trees?) No, I’ve been called to be vulnerable with MY story, and not only would I feel disobedient if I didn’t share, but it wouldn’t feel authentic or honoring of my past struggles, and other women currently struggling, if I didn’t. So…

As I look back on all of this, you know that I’m asking myself this question:

What have I learned from this? Here’s what I can say…

1. Trust your gut (and God!), and be your own advocate if you know something is wrong with your body. 

2. Be patient, but persistent, in finding answers and lay EVERYTHING at the feet of Jesus. He will show you the path, one step at a time.

3. Don’t believe what the world says is beautiful. 

We are fearfully and wonderfully made by a Creator who doesn’t make mistakes and loves WHO we are, not how we look. I want to tell women, especially my breast cancer survivor sisters, we are beautiful with or without our breasts. 

When you’re in the thick of a cancer journey, you’re in flight or fight mode. It’s often hard to make decisions, and you have to do the best you can in those moments. Almost six years ago, when I had the mastectomy surgery, I chose reconstruction because I wanted to feel put together again. I believed if I had my breasts “restored” that maybe it would feel like this nightmare didn’t actually happen and I wouldn’t be reminded of it every time I looked in the mirror. 

These are all normal feelings to have when you’re going through a trial like cancer, and I don’t fault myself, or anyone else, for making that choice. Again, I was just doing the best I could in that very terrifying time, and anyone who finds themselves in these situations needs to do what’s best for them. Do I wish I could go back and choose a different route? Sure. But I can’t go back. What I can do is choose to give myself….grace. 

Now, when I look in the mirror, and sometimes awkwardly get dressed every morning, I have a very obvious reminder that I had cancer. But instead of looking at the new scars as reminders of my trauma, I am choosing to look at them as beautiful markings of God’s goodness and grace. Reminders that He loves me so much that He would reveal this potentially massive health issue and ultimately save my life…AGAIN. 

A few days after the surgery I found myself waking up, with ZERO anxiety, to the words of a CAIN song running through my head:

“I’m so blessed, I’m so blessed

Got this heartbeat in my chest.

No, it doesn’t matter about the rest,

If I’ve got you, Lord, I’m so blessed.” 

I am alive, and I feel more energetic and beautiful than I have in a long time. Do I still have hard days? Sure. It’s different, yes, but it’s me. My physical body does not determine my worth or my identity. 

This is who I am….

simply, and unashamedly, the daughter of the King.