For makeup artist Jenna Kristina, breast implants were a rite of passage. “I got my implants when I was 22 years old,” she says, “I was one of the last of my high school friends to undergo the enhancement.” Breast implants are the most popular cosmetic procedure in America — over 300,000 procedures were done in 2018 alone. For 13 years, she enjoyed the results of hers. “I was so proud to have the new additions to my chest,” she says. So why did she decide this year to remove them? The answer: breast implant illness, a condition that more and more women are sharing their experiences with.
So what exactly is breast implant illness? Right now, researchers and doctors don’t know too much about this wide umbrella of symptoms. Recent studies have linked silicone breast implants with higher rates of autoimmune illnesses like rheumatoid arthritis and systemic sclerosis and in some cases lymphoma. Common symptoms reported by people with the condition include fatigue, memory issues, muscle, and joint pain, shortness of breath, and generally suppressed immunity to illness. Makes sense, if you consider that your body thinks its literally fighting off a foreign object in your body.
Like others Jenna had many of those symptoms. But the most shocking? A whopping 12 bouts of shingles, a viral infection that causes a painful rash and is linked to a compromised immune system. “Most doctors are shocked to hear I’ve had shingles so many times,” says Jenna. During her most recent battle with it, she spoke to an integrative doctor. “She asked ‘how old were you the first time you got shingles?’ I said ‘23.’ Then she asked, ‘how old were you when you got your implants?’ I said ‘22…oh shit, do I need to get them taken out?’”
“My biggest fear was not just what I would look like, but who I would be without implants.”
In many cases, the solution for breast implant illness is the one you probably don’t want to hear: removing implants often leads to improved health. “Full transparency: the day they were drained I went home and bawled my eyes out — full-on ugly cried,” Jenna says. “I wasn’t crying because it hurt or because I regretted the decision; I was mourning the reasons I got them done in the first place and what I thought it meant to be a woman.”
For many women, breast size and shape is a big determinant of self-esteem. Over 70% of women involved in a recent study reported that they were unhappy with their breasts. Breast implants often promise a solution for that dissatisfaction. On the flip side? It can be hard to imagine yourself without them. “My biggest fear was not just what I would look like, but who I would be without implants,” Jenna says. “I had created a story around myself with breasts. The confidence it gave me? It was all an illusion.”
To up her self-esteem post-removal, Jenna committed to working on herself in ways that aren’t related to her appearance, like working with a therapist and an energy healer. And she has high hopes for her physical recovery as well. “I hope that removing my implants will allow my body to operate at its optimal health level,” she says. “I’ve already noticed the color coming back to my face.”
After everything she’s been through, what would Jenna say to people considering implants? “I think if someone told me before I did my augmentation that later on I would have health complications and it might possibly compromise my immune system, I would still do it,” she says. “When you’re young you think you’re invincible. I always suggest people do as much research as possible on the positive and negative effects.” There are other options if you still want to augment your breasts without implants. “I recommend looking into fat transfer surgery instead — they can liposuction your own fat and move it to your breasts,” says Jenna. “Then you won’t have a foreign object sitting in your body. “
At the end of the day, your health is #1. If you’re experiencing any health issues and you suspect they’re related to your implants, see your doctor for a checkup. If it comes down to needing to remove your implants, know that you are not alone. And remember: whether or not you have your ideal boobs doesn’t make any difference in terms of your worth. “I’m now in a place where I’m not letting the shape of my body and the size of my breasts define who I am or what I’m worth.”