GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Thousands of women plagued by debilitating symptoms couldn’t find answers when they went to doctor after doctor. So they turned to the internet — and they found something.
Though the medical community hasn’t fully recognized it, the women call it breast implant illness.
Jessica Withey, a wife, mother of two and realtor living in Grand Haven, blames it for her constant pain.
She underwent breast augmentation surgery a decade ago during her more wild youth in Texas.
“You ever see ‘Coyote Ugly?’ I would dance on a bar, clothes were on and everything, but we had routines we did, we danced on the bar, worked for tips,” Withey said.
A deal with a doctor who gave discounts to those who used their bodies to make money had Withey jumping at the chance to leave her A cup behind. She got what’s commonly referred to as “gummy bear” implants.
“By the time I healed, I was a 32DD to fit a bra,” she said. “That’s ginormous. I’m 5’2″ and I was like 100 pounds at the time. I was not happy with how big they were right off the bat. But it was, ‘Well, it is what it is.’ Like, ‘I’ve got them. I chose this.'”
What she didn’t choose is what came next.
“If I would have known then what I could be feeling now, it never would have been worth it because the pain that I’m in daily, like I’m looking at a fibromyalgia diagnosis. I don’t want that. Nobody wants that,” Withey said.
CANCER SURVIVOR KEEPS GETTING SICK
Nearly four years ago, Grand Rapids hairstylist Becky Richard discovered she had breast cancer after a client urged her to get a mammogram.
“With the aggressive form that I have, my surgeon said, ‘I really don’t see this type in a stage 1, it’s usually a 3 or 4 by the time I see it. So you’re just so lucky,'” Richard told News 8 in April 2017, the day before her cancer treatment journey began.
After a double mastectomy and treatment for the cancer, Richard underwent surgery to reconstruct her breasts.
“I heard these fifth-generation silicone implants are very safe and millions of women have them and it’s very routine surgery and basically the risk I heard was the risk of infection from surgery,” Richard said.
Then, like Withey, Richard started feeling sick.
“I had gastrointestinal issues that got really bad. After I stopped chemo, I lost 20 pounds. I couldn’t digest food. I was having reactions to food. Terrible joint pain and I wasn’t on any continued medication that would cause joint pain. It was kind of a mystery,” Richard said.
Withey says since she got breast implants, she experienced the most severe menstrual cramps of her life, heavy periods, anxiety issues, tenderness to the touch and radiating breast pain.
“I have back pain all the time. I have neck pain all the time,” Withey said.
Withey said one of the most severe problems she had is pain in her knees and joints. It wakes her up in tears, she said.
Both women say they sought the advice of many doctors.
“I saw a gastro doc, I saw a gynecologist, I saw a rheumatologist, I saw an ophthalmologist, I saw an ENT for my hearing. Basically, from a lot of those doctors I heard this may be your new normal,” Richard said.
“The level of (knee and joint) pain I’m having, he’s like, ‘I can’t explain it.’ None of the scans came back with any evidence. No bone spurs, no tear, nothing that they can see,” said Withey.
THE INTERNET LEADS TO ANSWERS
The two women had never met, but at the same time, they were coming to terms with their new normal.
Then the internet and the power of social media stepped in. Articles, testimonials, information that eventually led them to Dr. Shaher Khan of Executive Plastic Surgery in Novi. He said he knows what’s causing Withey and Richards’ illness: the breast implants.
“We look at the pathology reports and we’ll see the chronic inflammation, the silica amongst the many others where there is a giant cell reaction, a foreign body reaction clearly identifying of what is breast implant illness,” Khan said.
Breast implant illness: the name given to a list of dozens of symptoms and ailments from head to toe affecting women.
For Richard, coming across the websites about it was a revelation.
“There were all of my symptoms right there in front of me, and I just cried because I knew that this might be some hope for me,” said.
“This is an internet phenomenon, a social media phenomenon,” Khan said. “Had we been in the ’70s and ’80s, we would not be talking right now.”
Nearly 3,000 women belong to his Breast Implant Illness Support Group Facebook page.
‘A REAL PROBLEM AND A REAL SOLUTION’
The American Society of Plastic Surgeons reports nearly 314,000 women had breast augmentation surgery in 2018, nearly double the number from 20 years ago. More than 29,000 women later had theirs removed.
Khan says he started noticing the same women who came in for breast implants while he was in medical school and his residency would coming back to explant, a procedure he now does several times a week in his Novi clinic.
“What amazes me is the fact that we have a solution, which is explantation, but the medical community is still far lagging behind in regards to recognizing it and even considering it as a differential diagnosis,” Khan said.
Women aren’t waiting for the medical community to catch up. They’re coming from around the world to have their breast implants explanted by Khan.
“Not only within the U.S., but also in the United Kingdom, Europe, South America, the Middle East,” he listed. “It is truly the amazing power of the internet that has united the ladies and literally empowered them in saying, ‘You know what? We’re going to get our health and we’re going to get it back. And we’re going to certainly be free and void of all these problems,'” Khan said.
“We have enough data just from the patients’ feedback that this is real and there’s a real problem and a real solution to it,” he continued.
In August, the FDA provided an update on what it calls “adverse events” related to breast implants, saying in part:
“While there is limited use of the term “breast implant illness” in medical literature, symptoms such as fatigue, memory loss, rash, “brain fog,” and joint pain may be associated with breast implants, and some patients and clinicians may use the term “breast implant illness” to describe these symptoms or use these terms when reporting them to the FDA.
“While the FDA doesn’t have definitive evidence demonstrating breast implants cause these symptoms, the current evidence supports that some patients experience systemic symptoms that may resolve when their breast implants are removed. The FDA is committed to communicating information the agency receives about systemic symptoms reported by patients with breast implants.”
On the breast implant removal page of The American Society of Plastic Surgeons website, the organization says:
“Breast implants are not lifelong devices and it is important to have them exchanged or removed approximately every 10-15 years by a board-certified plastic surgeon. This decision is typically based on the individual and the patient’s needs and desires.”
WHAT’S NEXT FOR WEST MICHIGAN WOMEN
“It’s thousands of women saying, ‘I got mine out and this got better. I got mine out and this and this and this got better. I got mine out and look at my face.’ Our eyes are bloodshot and puffy and just look sick,” Withey said.
Richard, who said she would rather go through chemotherapy again than suffer from breast implant illness, knew right away she wanted to have her breast implants removed.
“Having gone through cancer, that’s a pretty tough thing to go through. Just to be here almost four years later and to feel like I have to start over, that’s a hard pill to swallow,” Richard said.
Both Withey and Richard explanted with Khan in December. News 8 plans to follow up with them after their recovery.