Raylene Hollrah was 33 years old in 2007 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. A year and a half later, when she was ready for reconstructive surgery, she chose a silicone-filled implant with a textured surface made by Allergan. Hollrah, from Hermann, Mo., believed a selling point of the implant was that she’d automatically be enrolled in a 10-year study “so I could help other women,” she says.
What Hollrah didn’t know is that medical devices—including breast implants, artificial joints, and pacemakers—are subject to much less rigorous premarket testing than drugs are. That’s partly because the FDA didn’t begin regulating medical devices or requiring research on their efficacy and safety until 1976, after many devices were already in use.
Silicone breast implants were introduced in the 1960s with little to no safety research, says Diana Zuckerman, Ph.D., president of the National Center for Health Research. Even after the FDA began regulating them, the agency didn’t require premarket studies until 1991—when it determined there was insufficient safety research, and soon after put a moratorium on sales.
In 2006, when the FDA did approve silicone implants, it was on the condition that manufacturers conduct post-market studies, one of which included Hollrah. But that wasn’t made clear to her early on. And as time passed, more problems emerged. In 2011, the FDA announced a link between silicone- and saline-filled implants and a form of cancer called anaplastic large cell lymphoma (ALCL).
But Hollrah didn’t learn about breast implant associated ALCL, or BIA-ALCL, until 2013, when one of her implants swelled and she tested positive. “I removed breast cancer,” Hollrah says, “and then I put something right back in my body that gave me cancer again.”
Around the time of Hollrah’s diagnosis, Allergan dropped her from its post-approval study. In fact, Allergan lost track of many participants, in part because it was difficult to follow up with the women, who were given no real incentives to stay involved in the studies, Zuckerman says. As a result, the research was never completed. Yet the FDA did not penalize manufacturers or recall the implants.
Fortunately for Hollrah, her cancer was caught early. She had her implants removed in 2013 and is now cancer-free.
But it wasn’t until July 2019 that the FDA announced the recall of Allergan’s textured implants due to a reported worldwide total of 573 BIA-ALCL cases, 481 of them from Allergan, including 33 deaths.
When asked why it took eight years after the FDA acknowledged the risk of BIA-ALCL for the agency to request a recall, an FDA spokesperson said it took the action after learning, in the spring of 2019, of “a significant increase in known cases of BIA-ALCL.”
Though the recall is a victory for women affected by BIA-ALCL, other concerns remain. For one, “when medical devices are recalled, there’s typically not a rigorous process to reclaim the flawed products,” says Lisa McGiffert, a co-founder of the Patient Safety Action Network and a former patient-safety expert at CR.
There’s also no established system for device manufacturers to find and notify doctors and patients about a recall. Hollrah notes that she has yet to receive a recall notification from Allergan.
For its part, Allergan says that “patient safety is a priority” and that it is committed to ensuring the safe and effective use of its products.
Still, hundreds of thousands of women are estimated to have a recalled device in their bodies and no easy choices. The FDA recommends implant removal only for women with a diagnosis of BIA-ALCL. But women don’t always have obvious symptoms. “Although BIA-ALCL is treatable if caught early, no one wants to wait to see if they get cancer,” says Sara Castro, an attorney at Farr law firm in Punta Gorda, Fla., who is working with affected women.
Another hurdle: Though Allergan will pay for replacement implants in the case of a cancer diagnosis or implant defect, it doesn’t cover the surgical costs of preventive implant removal. Most insurers won’t cover it, either.
Scot Glasberg, M.D., past president of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons and a consultant for Allergan, says that “if a woman has any concerns whatsoever, she should see a plastic surgeon who is board certified,” specializes in breast implants, and is knowledgeable about BIA-ALCL to go over her screening and testing options.
Women considering breast-implant surgery (or any medical device procedure) should ask their surgeon for an informed consent form that details what the device contains, and known risks. “This form is not mandated yet,” says Hollrah, who did not have that protection before her surgery and has since worked with Zuckerman, Glasberg, and others to develop a patient form and clearer warnings. And they have made progress on that front: On October 24, 2019, the FDA recommended that patient labeling for breast implants include a patient decision checklist, a boxed warning, an information booklet, and a patient device card. A final decision on that recommendation isn’t expected until 2020 at the earliest.
Madris Tomes, a former program manager at the FDA who now runs Device Events—which gathers adverse event reports on medical devices—recommends researching your device. One free source is an online FDA database called MAUDE (Manufacturer and User Facility Device Experience). “Two-thirds of all recalls begin as an adverse event report,” Tomes says.