Breast implants are associated with an increased risk of a rare form of cancer, according to a new study published Thursday in JAMA Oncology. Although the issue has been known about for two decades, this is the largest study of the association between breast implants and lymphoma to date.
Scientists still sure how breast implants might be increasing a person’s risk of cancer. As the paper describes, the implant may trigger an inflammatory response. Alternatively, a bacterial species could be hitching a ride on the implant’s surface. Some women may even be genetically predisposed to develop this kind of cancer after a breast implant.
The statistics in this study appear alarming at first glance. In the new study, breast implants were associated with a 421 times greater risk of developing anaplastic large cell lymphoma. However, understanding what that number actually means is crucial.
That number, while astonishing, isn’t necessarily the important piece of information for someone considering this type of plastic surgery. That’s because it doesn’t reflect the risk at a real-life scale, explained Dr. Daphne de Jong, a pathologist at VU University Medical Center. “What a person with breast implants wants to know is what is my individual risk,” de Jong told Newsweek.
The more relevant number is this: if 7,000 women got breast implants, one of them would be diagnosed with this type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. “That’s extraordinarily low,” said Dennis Deapen, a cancer epidemiologist at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine who was not involved in the research. About 4 percent of American women have breast implants, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis.
The 421-fold increase is what’s known as the relative risk. The more palatable figure of one in 7,000 is the absolute risk. Why are these numbers so different? Understanding the distinction could be important for someone deciding whether or not to have breast implants.