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Can breast implants delay cancer diagnosis?

Breast implants may play a role in how early women are diagnosed with breast cancer, with research showing that women with implants are more likely to have their cancer diagnosed at a later stage.

BMJ Group News

What do we know already?

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Millions of women around the world have had implants put into their breasts to make them larger. Despite the popularity of this cosmetic surgery, it is not without risks. These may include a possible link with breast cancer.

Although implants do not seem to increase the chance of breast cancer, some studies suggest that they may make cancer harder to detect at an early stage. This is because implants can create shadows on mammograms (scans), which can hide breast tissue. As a result, some cancers may not be found until they are more advanced and more difficult to treat.

To test this theory, researchers pooled the results of 12 studies that compared women with breast cancer based on whether they had implants or not. The researchers looked at whether women with implants were more likely to have been diagnosed at a later stage, and whether they had a higher risk of dying from their disease.

What does the new study say?

Overall, women with implants were 26 percent more likely to have been diagnosed with cancer that had spread beyond their breast. In one study, this meant that around 40 in 100 women with implants were diagnosed with more advanced cancer, compared with about 30 in 100 women without implants.

The researchers also found that women with implants were more likely to have died of their cancer than women without implants.

How reliable is the research?

We need to be cautious about these findings for a couple of reasons. First, the researchers looked at only a small number of studies - 12 in total, with only five looking at the women’s chance of dying from breast cancer. This doesn’t represent enough research to draw firm conclusions.

These studies also aren’t of the type that can prove cause and effect. This means we can’t be certain that women’s raised risk of being diagnosed at a later stage, or of dying, was caused by their implants. There might have been other factors that played a role, such as the women’s ages. Some of the studies tried to account for these factors, but others did not.

What does this mean for me?

If you have cosmetic breast implants or are considering getting them, these findings may sound alarming. But bear in mind that more research is needed before we can confirm these results. There are also things you can do to help spot breast cancer at an earlier stage, such as having screening mammograms regularly if you’re aged 50 to 70, and seeing your GP if you notice any changes to your breasts. If you have any concerns or questions, speak with your doctor.

Published on May 01, 2013

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