Women who decide to have breast implants, either for cosmetic reasons or to rebuild after a mastectomy, are being given a new warning about a rare cancer directly linked to the implants.

Earlier this year, the U.S. FDA warned that it has received more reports about a type of cancer called anaplastic large cell lymphoma, or ALCL, in women with breast implants.

For a long time, doctors dismissed concerns that breast implants could cause cancer. But the FDA says it has reviewed as many as 250 cases of ALCL in women with breast implants worldwide.

“All of the information to date still suggests that women with breast implants may have a very low but increased risk of developing ALCL,” the FDA says on its website.

Surrey. B.C. resident Danielle Washington developed the cancer after receiving breast implants following her fifth pregnancy. Her first warning sign was a sudden swelling in one of her breasts in July.

“I got up one morning to go to work and had a shower. I looked at my breast and it had doubled in size,” she recalls.

After a visit with her doctor, Washington was horrified to learn she had ALCL, which was likely linked to her implants.

Washington now has regrets about the implants she chose to have in 2011.

“I would have never had them put in had I known the risks,” she says.

Washington says she has been unable to work and is raising funds for her family through Go Fund Me.

Anaplastic large cell lymphoma typically appears in fluid and soft tissue around the implant itself. It is slow-growing, typically taking six to eight years to show up.

The cancer is so rare, it accounts for only about only one to two per cent of all cases of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

According to the Lymphoma Research Foundation, initial symptoms of ALCL may include:

  • fever
  • backache
  • painless swelling of lymph nodes
  • loss of appetite
  • tiredness

The exact reasons as to how breast implants could lead to the cancer are unclear. Some suspect the cancer develops due to the body’s abnormal immune response to the implant.

According to research led by Dr. Suzanne Turner of the University of Cambridge in the U.K., almost all cases of ALCL in women have occurred in those who have had breast augmentation, with the tumours developing in the scar tissue surrounding the implant.

The good news is that implant-associated ALCL is treatable, says Dr. Joan Lipa, a plastic surgeon at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, who specializes in breast reconstruction.

“Usually, the treatment is removal of the implant with the entire surrounding breast tissue capsule,” says Lipa.

Only 15 per cent of women who develop the cancer require chemotherapy; most have a good prognosis.

Daiva Ratavicius Hoover was diagnosed her with breast implant associated ALCL 2013. She had both implants and a tumour removed . She also underwent 18 sessions of chemotherapy.

Today she is healthy and her cancer is completely gone. She wants women to know about this risk but also that you can recover.

“I was on the leading edge of a new cancer,” she says. “I am patient number 45 and what I think it tells women is not to be afraid.”

The other good news is that the cancer is very rare, occurring in just a small percentage of those who receive implants.

“There are millions of women with breast implants and yet we know of about 250 cases, so still rare,” Lipa says.

Canadian doctors were sent a letter late last year asking them to start warning women of the small potential risk. Lipa says her clinic now includes the warning in the consent package given to patients.

But she also urges women who have had implants to remain vigilant for symptoms of ALCL.

“If they have implants, and they notice a sudden swelling that’s large or if they feel anything (unusual), then they need to get that checked out,” she said, adding: “It’s important for plastic surgeons, for patients and for other health care professionals to be aware of this very rare but real and treatable entity.”

With a report from CTV medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip