Victims Find Solace in Solidarity

By Catherine Ann Buckler

Victims of Breast Implant Illness, or BII, face physical, emotional, and financial hardship throughout their self diagnoses and explant experiences. They feel themselves begin to deteriorate slowly and the medical community ignores their suspicions and agony. But that does not mean they resign their lives to sitting in pain—many become vocal advocates as part of their healing process.

According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, breast augmentation, also known as breast implants, is the number one cosmetic procedure in the United States. The cost for these procedures can run from $250 to more than $2,000 an implant depending on the type.

While the motivation varies for each woman, the trend is the implants were decided on as a matter of aesthetics. Yet, while this seemingly innocuous cosmetic procedure may improve a sense of self esteem and attractiveness, increasingly, the results are a myriad of afflictions, such as, swollen lymph nodes, alopecia, memory loss, and anaplastic large cell lymphoma.

Tara Hopko had become a competitive bodybuilder when she decided to enhance her appearance with breast implants. While competing in figure contests, she found herself fixated on the bodies of other women who were competing against her in competitions.

“That is when I first started to realize that I did not feel as much like a woman as some of the other women looked to me, because I did not have much breast of my own,” Hopko says.

In April of 2015, she got silicone implants. The problems started almost immediately. “I just noticed I did not bounce back from the surgery very well,” Hopko said. She thought she might have harmed her adrenal glands from her bodybuilding supplements. She did not know at the time that the fatigue and frequent urination were symptoms of BII.

Credit: Tara Hopko

Hopko began to see her energy ebbing, a lethargy, that cycled like a dolphin swimming in and out of the water, close to the surface but never consistently in or out.

Other physical ailments followed her chronic fatigue, such as swollen lymph nodes, panic attacks, depression, heart palpitations, silent reflux, cystic acne, and joint pain. After doctors failed to pinpoint the cause of her illness, she started doing her own research.

“Right around two and a half years, I started getting a sick stomach all the time,” Hopko says. “I did not know what was wrong with me.”

Ultimately, Tara Hopko documented her experiences on paper, which would later be published as her first book Let Me Get This Off My Chest.

“I felt dead on the inside. I did not want to live anymore the way I was feeling,” Hopko said.

Credit: Tara Hopko

In her book, Hopko describes not only the physicality of her pain, such as swollen lymph nodes, acid reflux, constant pain her throat, and a pain in her left breast that continuously woke her up at night.

She explanted after having her implants for three years. She was still paying off her $9000 implants at that time, as she was sorting her finances to pay for her explant procedure. Her insurance did not pay for her implants or explants. She says it was a huge burden for her family financially.

“There is a lot of guilt that goes along with that,” Hopko says. “You have regret for doing it to yourself in the first place.”

It has changed the way she talks to her daughters. “Now I’m trying to teach them that they need to love themselves for who they are, and be happy with the way God made them.”

Hopko admits she enjoyed the implants for the reasons she got them, especially in regular clothes such as tee shirts. She says they made her feel ‘happy.’ The brief happiness of filled out bikinis has never made the toll implants took, and continue to take, on her health worth it.

A similar story comes from Annette Figueroa in South Florida. She got her implants in 2006, and says she got them because she felt like she needed to feel more feminine.

“I started having symptoms, maybe a year later, maybe earlier,” Figueroa said. “Because my hair was falling out.”

Her insurance did not cover her explant.

“We put it on the credit card, no interest for two years, and we are paying it off now,” Figueroa said.

Her ordeal and her findings have redirected Hopko’s life completely. She has now become a healthcare activist, even testifying to the FDA and becoming the face of Breast Implant Illness. Hopko accepts responsibility for pursuing the augmentation, but then feels anger to the reluctance she encountered from doctors after she was affected to even acknowledge the dirty little secret and what is becoming a health epidemic.

Credit: Tara Hopko

Hopko came to the conclusion that she had BII after coming across the Facebook group “Breast Implant Illness and Healing by Nicole.”

The page is run by Nicole Daruda, who encourages women to visit her website, which functions as a clearing house for more detailed information on what BII is.

The women who participate in this online community more often than not stumble on it after Googling the causes of their myriad symptoms. Sometimes, they may have already received soft or vague medical diagnoses to their ailments, such as Hashimoto’s Disease, IBS, swollen lymph nodes, and liver dysfunction. 

Simply listing symptoms is vital to these women, who Daruda says are often blown off by doctors.

She even started bringing her partner into doctor’s appointments with her, because she felt that was the only way she would be taken seriously by medical professionals.

“I actually had to take my partner to my appointments so my doctor would take me seriously and order the tests I was asking for,” says Daruda. “That’s how bad it is, you have to have a man there [with you].”

“There is a huge bias in the medical community against women,” Daruda says. “Women are brushed off all the time, or meant to feel like they are a head case. When I reported with my symptoms, I was told I needed a psych evaluation.”