When Kimberly Motta was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2016, she opted for a double mastectomy and reconstruction with silicone breast implants. But almost immediately after the procedure, a new set of health issues consumed her. Her breast became bruised, a rash crawled across her fingertips and her muscles felt immovable.
“I was walking around like a tin man,” Motta recalls.
Years later, she’d realize just how literal a description that was when tests revealed that her body was awash in heavy metals.
Motta’s experience follows an unfortunate arc, one similar to that of thousands of women experiencing breast implant illness (BII). Thanks to support groups on social media, many of these women have shared their symptoms and experiences of the condition in hopes of saving lives. They’ve also effectively alerted regulators, like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, who have taken steps to prioritize patient safety and hold manufacturers accountable when women are sickened.
After years of suffering and countless dead ends, Motta chanced upon one of these support groups and finally connected the dots of her symptoms. By then, her bruises and pain had snowballed into severe brain fog and confusion, poor vision, anxiety, depressive episodes, rapid weight loss, yellowing eyes, mood swings and capsular contracture so severe she could barely lift her arms. She hurried to find a surgeon. On a June day in 2019, exactly three years after she got the implants, Motta was finally free of the seemingly debilitating devices.
“After her first postoperative visit, I remember thinking this is like a different person that I’m talking to,” says plastic surgeon Dr. Pankaj Tiwari, who performed Motta’s explant surgery. “It was very dramatic for me.”
But freeing herself of the implants was just one step of Motta’s journey back to health.
Many women suffering from BII struggle to convince doctors that implants are causing their symptoms. A vexing condition resembling various autoimmune diseases, BII is usually diagnosed by ruling out other possibilities.
In this case, however, Motta was armed with unique evidence. She underwent a toxic metals hair analysis both pre- and post-explant, and the results show a direct correlation between level of toxicity and presence of implants in her body. Few women with implants appear to undergo such tests, and research on heavy metals and implants is virtually nonexistent.
For Motta, the difference between the results was dramatic.
The goal of the first test, conducted in 2017, was to add more context to Motta’s original breast cancer diagnosis. With the implants in her body, her test results revealed high (68th-percentile or greater) to critically high (97th-percentile or greater) levels of cadmium, copper, mercury, molybdenum, platinum, tin, titanium, and zinc.
Neither she nor her physician were familiar with BII at the time, but she’d later come to find these metals were ingredients of her Mentor MemoryShape silicone implants.
Fast forward to 2019, after her explant surgery. Still concerned with her body’s toxicity and brain function, Motta visited a doctor of functional medicine and underwent a second heavy metal test. The results revealed nearly all the heavy metal levels in her body had drastically dropped well below the 68th-percentile.
Tin man no more, Motta’s body returned to safe levels in the absence of breast implants.
Heavy metal toxicity within the body can disrupt metabolic function and damage the kidneys, brain, liver and central nervous system. Both saline and silicone FDA-approved breast implants contain heavy metals as either ingredients or part of the manufacturing process.
These implants can be dangerous even when they don’t rupture. Studies show that the heavy metals in silicone gel can seep through an intact shell in what’s known as “gel bleed.” A 2017 investigation found the material can then migrate from surrounding tissues to bone, organs and the brain. A 2020 paper further suggests that silicone may lead to cell death.
While the FDA, along with many doctors, doesn’t recognize heavy metals as a significant risk, the agency has performed only a single investigation on the matter, and it focused solely on platinum. And many studies from the last few decades that echo these views were funded by manufacturers or doctors motivated by profit.
Despite the lack of data, many conversations in BII support groups chronicle personal experiences of metal toxicity. It’s common for women to describe symptoms as mild as a persistent metallic taste in their mouth after implant surgery, to more serious side effects like metal allergies or adrenal failure. Some share stories of doctors urging them to explant due to metal toxicity alone.
“The science side doesn’t support the clinical side right now,” explains plastic surgeon Dr. Robert DeConti, who treats BII patients. “We need more of the pre-tests, post-tests, and it needs to be done on a large scale.”
The damage from the implants is devastating and far-reaching.
— Kimberly Motta
Motta feels better physically after explanting, but worries her cognitive function will never fully recover. Recent brain scans revealed significant damage to her parietal lobe, an area responsible for managing temperature, touch and other sensory information. The lobe, Motta learned, is especially sensitive to environmental toxins like heavy metals.
Like the heavy metals contained in the implants she carried inside her body for years.
“Most women with breast implant illness think that having the implants removed is the final solution,” observes Motta. Yet her experience shows explant surgery is merely the start of a new chapter. “The damage from the implants is devastating and far-reaching.”
To bolster cognitive function, Motta has been advised to spend 30 hours in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber over two months. This is on top of taking 50 supplements throughout the day to reduce inflammation and support her adrenal, thyroid, mitochondria, brain and immune system health.
Keeping the supplements’ timing and directions straight can be overwhelming, so she follows a homemade chart each day. The process serves as a constant reminder of the damage done by her breast implants.
“I carried heavy metals around for three years, messed up all the systems in my body,” she says. “I know the body can repair itself, but I want to give it all the materials that I can.”
By Lauren Styx
Lauren Styx is a health magazine editor and freelance writer based in Chicago. Her storytelling explores health, culture, sustainability and the ways in which those areas intersect.