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Can having breast implants lead to suicide? 7 On Your Side investigates

Can having breast implants lead to suicide? 7 On Your Side investigates. (ABC7)

Breast Implants & Suicide: Real Risk or Fringe Research?

Three-hundred thousand women will get breast implants this year, making it the number one cosmetic surgery in the U.S. Research shows the typical breast implant patient has high self-esteem and good mental health, higher and better than the general population. According to implant manufacturers, satisfaction rates top the 83-97 percentile range, excellent results for any kind of surgery. So why would some women with breast implants have a higher rate of suicide than women who don’t have them?

“Maybe just a coincidence,” Dr. Scott Spear, a well-known plastic surgeon in Washington, D.C., told 7 On Your Side. “There may be an association between breast implants and suicide, but it’s probably a loose association.”

That’s not the way Diana Zuckerman, PhD, president of the National Research Center for Women and Families, sees it. Not at all.

“When you look at suicide and implants, the women with breast implants are more likely to kill themselves.”

How much more likely? Anywhere from two to 12 times. Zuckerman wrote about that conclusion after evaluating seven studies on the topic.

“Some surgeons believe if a woman with implants kills herself, she must’ve had something wrong to begin with; that she got implants because of low self-esteem, depression, to feel better. But women with implants are more likely to kill themselves than with other (plastic) surgeries. Why would a mastectomy patient be 10 times as likely to kill herself as a mastectomy patient who doesn’t have implants?”

Zuckerman doesn’t know that answer definitively, but she is convinced there is something physiological or mental that causes women with implants to have a diminished view of themselves.

“They do feel sexier (after implants). But they feel less healthy, less mentally healthy. For this one benefit of feeling sexier, for some reason, a whole lot of other things feel worse.”

7 On Your Side met with a group of four women who had their implants removed after they were diagnosed with a variety of auto-immune conditions. One had lymph nodes taken out, another was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, and another, who is suing her implant manufacturer, began to lose her eyesight. All of them blamed their breast implants, all of them have struggled with depression after implants and all of them can imagine why some women give up on life.

“I was a stunt woman and an actress. It took my career,” said Chandra DeAlessandro through tears, “I’m very pissed off.”

“It affects your family, you have kids at home who don’t understand why you are sick,” said Jamee Cook, a former paramedic. “I can see why someone would get to that point.”

The number of women who get to that tragic point is small. According to the CDC: 9.8 women per 100,000 will commit suicide. And middle-aged women, in general, had the largest increase in suicide in the last 15 years, up 63 percent.

“I don’t think any of us could be suicidal,” said one Arlington woman who recently had breast enhancement surgery. She and a group of women who are happy with their implants agreed to be interviewed by 7 On Your Side, but they chose to remain anonymous for fear of being judged for getting the surgery.

“Everybody has them; I know so many people who have them,” said another woman in the group.

“I love them, absolutely love them,” said another. “I told the surgeon to let me wake up looking like a Playmate. I have not one day of regret, not one.”

The women who had their implants removed are the polar opposite. They regret the decision to get breast implants and believe women should be made aware of any risk, no matter how small.

Ed Brent never imagined that his wife, PJ, a beautiful woman, a successful flight attendant and a mother to seven children and stepchildren, would end her life after she blamed implants for severe medical problems. She was 49 years old.

“She was sick from the implants but doctors would not acknowledge that,” said Brent. “It was her greatest frustration that they wouldn’t listen to her.”

PJ suffered from depression, and her daughter, Catherine, who was 15 when her mom took her life, knew she felt guilt-ridden and helpless.

“But I never expected her to do anything as drastic as that,” said Catherine, who suffers from a nervous system condition and relies on a wheelchair. “There were times I wanted to die. It was hard growing up with a disability, with mom sick. She told me I could never do it. I wasn’t allowed to.”

But her mother, who was diagnosed with lupus and fibromyalgia, struggled to get out of bed every day and she blamed herself for poisoning her own body.

“One cosmetic decision she made had such a profound impact on so many lives, on her children, and that’s what drove her to it,” said Catherine.

Ed still has one of his wife’s old implants. It sounds strange that he would keep it, but to him, it’s evidence that she was right all along. An autopsy showed platinum from PJ’s leaking implants in every organ of her body, including her brain.

“If your wife had never gotten implants, would she be here today?” 7 On Your Side asked Brent, who lives in Greenville, South Carolina and has children living in Arlington.

“Yes,” he said. “Without a doubt.”

Dr. Zuckerman said women going through menopause are one of the highest risk groups. Their bodies have changed after giving birth, and they may be lured in by “Mommy Makeover” marketing.

“But according to research,” she said, “it’s a bad time. A dangerous time.”

Dr. Spear shakes his head. “By no stretch would I believe that women with implants are suicidal. In fact, it’s the opposite.”

As the former chairman of the plastic surgery department at Georgetown University Hospital, he has performed thousands of breast implant surgeries for nearly 40 years. As far as he knows, he’s never lost a patient to suicide.

“Do you think these studies are even worth mentioning to your patients?” asked 7 On Your Side.

“No, I don’t, to be honest. This is far off the radar screen. There are so many other issues. This is a very fringy issue.”

However, in 2007, Dr. Spear co-authored an article titled, “What Do Women Need to Know and When do They Need to Know It?”, which stated: “Physicians need to be alert to the documented increased risk of suicide among women with breast implants, which was statistically significant in several large studies.”

Dr. Mark Clemens, another nationally recognized plastic surgeon, told 7 On Your Side, “It’s a major focus of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons to look into that association (between breast implants and suicide). I don’t think it’s necessarily cause and effect. It might just be a relationship, but we need to learn why this is occurring and make sure those patients are properly addressed.” Dr. Clemens is the ASPS liaison to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which has researched the issue, but doesn’t warn women about the potential risk of suicide.

Allergan, one of the most popular manufacturers of breast implants, discusses suicide in its disclosure materials for patients: “Some studies showed that women with breast implants were more likely to commit suicide than women without breast implants, but it is not clear whether these suicides were associated with having silicone gel breast implants or an underlying condition that can lead to suicide, depression, and/or anxiety. One researcher believes that some women who want cosmetic surgery suffer from a disorder, called body dysmorphic disorder which may cause them to think about suicide.”

Dr. Spear urges patients to carefully consider what he calls real risks, like the build-up of hard tissue around the implants (19-29%, according to Allergan), the loss of nipple sensation (6%), and implant rupture (5-14%).

“You don’t deny that there are risks and problems,” 7 On Your Side said to Dr. Spear.

“Of course there are risks and problems. But I think suicide is so unlikely,” said Dr. Spear. “There are probably more doctors who commit suicide than patients with implants.”

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