Former Ventura Deputy Mayor Pati Longo has never been afraid to voice her opinion. So when her surgeon invited the 64-year-old Longo to tell members of Congress about her experience with breast cancer and reconstructive implant surgery, she jumped at the chance.
At their own expense, Longo, 41-year-old Robyn Torrance of Ojai, and their Van Nuys-based surgeon, Dr. Neal Handel, joined about 600 people from 37 states early last month.
They were in Washington to speak to the House Subcommittee on Health and the Environment, which had convened to hear opinions from health professionals and patients on potential health risks for women who use silicone gel-filled breast implants.
Manufacturers of breast implants and medical researchers will have their day to present information when the Food and Drug Administration convenes an advisory committee Nov. 12-14, said spokeswoman Sharon Snider. The group will consider whether the scientific data on silicone gel-filled breast implants submitted by manufacturers is sufficient to establish that such implants are safe and effective.
“Breast implants have been in use since the 1960s,” Snider said. “Some of the known problems with silicone implants are infection, pain, hardening of the surrounding breast tissue, false mammography results, and silicone leakage. Questions have also been raised about other potential unknown long-term risks such as immune reactions and carcinogenicity.”
The FDA is expected to announce its decision regarding the fate of breast implants in January. The agency said that although most women do not experience serious adverse effects from using the products, unanswered questions about possible risks have prompted the FDA to require manufacturers to show they are safe.
During the three-day visit, Longo, Torrance and Handel explained to lawmakers what they thought removal of silicone implants from the market would mean to many American women.
About 2 million have had breast implants, either for reconstruction after cancer surgery or to enlarge or reshape breasts.
“About 90% of breast implants are silicone gel-filled,” Longo said. “The rest are filled with saline,” which Longo says are not as popular as they don’t create as natural a look as the silicone. “If the FDA wants to take them off the market, they won’t be illegal in other countries. So there will be a black market for them. Women will resort to anything.”
Longo and Torrance also countered some congressmen’s assertions that the use of implants is a “vanity issue,” not a health issue.
Longo acknowledges that 80% of breast implant surgeries are for augmentation, but the other 20%--involving women who have surgery for breast cancer--are necessary for restoring self-esteem, psychological well-being and comfort, she said.
Since 1978, when Longo’s breast cancer was first diagnosed, she has had two mastectomies and is on her third set of silicone breast implants.
“Before reconstructive surgery it was a nuisance to wear prostheses in my bra. It was not comfortable,” Longo said. “And if you use your arms a lot, the pads can shift and show. But most important, every night I felt like I was taking off half my body.”
According to figures from the American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons Inc., more than one-fourth of almost 43,000 breast reconstruction procedures performed in 1990 were on women between 51 and 64 years of age.
Longo acknowledged that there have been some problems with silicone implants. But she urged the congressmen to keep an open mind.
“I don’t think the sum of one’s life is wrapped up in a breast,” she said. “But I feel very strongly that women of all ages should have an informed choice about this issue.”
Every three minutes, breast cancer in a woman is diagnosed.
Every 12 minutes a woman will die from breast cancer. You can call the following toll-free numbers for information on cancer prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and a list of certified mammography facilities in your area.
* Y-ME, the national breast cancer hot line, 1-800-221-2141, weekdays, 8 a.m.-4 p.m.
* The Cancer Hotline, 1-800-638-6694.
* The American Cancer Society (a local branch or 1-800-ACS-2345).
* The National Cancer Institute hot line (1-800-4-CANCER).
* To learn more about breast implants and how to voice your opinion, call the Breast Implant Campaign, 1-800-333-8835. To report problems with breast implants call the FDA at 1-800-638-6725.
* Members of the American Cancer Society’s “Reach to Recovery” program in Ventura County are trained volunteers who have had breast cancer. They offer free home or hospital visits to explain pre-surgery options or to help women adjust to breast surgery and prosthetic devices. “After Breast Cancer,” a self-help support group for people with breast cancer, and “I Can Cope,” a support group for cancer patients and their families, hold free weekly meetings. For details, call the American Cancer Society, (805) 497-0114, or (805) 656-3437.