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Yesterday the FDA issued an alert about a possible link between breast implants – saline or silicone – and a rare form of lymphoma called anaplastic large cell lymphoma (ALCL). These lymphoma cases are exceedingly rare, but the association appears to be significant.

The FDA identified a total of approximately 60 ALCL cases in association with implants, worldwide. Of these, 34 were identified by review of published medical literature from 1997 to May, 2010; the others were reported by implant manufacturers and other sources. The agency estimates the number of women worldwide with breast implants is between 5 and 10 million. These numbers translate to between 6 and 12 ALCL cases in the breast, per million women with breast implants, assessed over 13 years or so.

In women who don’t have implants, ALCL is an infrequent tumor, affecting approximately 1 in 500,000 women is the U.S. per year. This form of lymphoma – a malignancy of lymphocytes, a kind of white blood cell – can arise almost anywhere in the body. But ALCL cases arising in the breast are unusual. The FDA reports that roughly 3 in 100,000,000 women are diagnosed with ALCL in the breast per year in the U.S.

These are very small numbers. Still, the finding of ALCL tumors by the implant capsules is highly suggestive. Almost all of the implant-associated ALCL cases were T-cell type, whereas most breast lymphomas are of B-cell type. The lymphomas arose in women with both silicone and saline-type implants, and in women with implants placed for purposes or augmentation and for reconstruction after mastectomy.

The clinical features varied among the reported cases. From the FDA’s review:

… the median time from breast implant placement to ALCL diagnosis was 8 years, with a range from 1 year to 23 years. Most patients were diagnosed when they sought medical treatment for implant-related symptoms such as persistent seromas, capsular contractures, or peri-implant masses warranting breast implant revision operations. In each case, lymphoma cells were found in the effusion fluid (seroma) surrounding the implant, in the fibrous capsule, or within a peri-implant mass. Typically, there was no invasion beyond the fibrous capsule into the breast parenchyma.

Figure 1 illustrates the location of the reports of ALCL adjacent to the breast implant.

This illustration shows the breast implant placed under the skin and breast tissue. The implant is separated from the breast tissue by a fibrous scar capsule. ALCL lymphoma cells are shown in the effusion fluid between the breast implant and the capsule and attached to the capsule itself.

Figure 1. Presence of ALCL cells in close proximity to a breast implant. In most cases, the ALCL cells were found in the effusion fluid (seroma) surrounding the implant or contained within the fibrous capsule. ALCL is lymphoma, a type of cancer involving cells of the immune system. It is not cancer of the breast tissue, and typically, invasion of the lymphoma beyond the fibrous capsule into the breast parenchyma was not observed. Modified from Thompson et al, (2010).

With such a small number of cases worldwide, it’s hard to draw evidence-based conclusions regarding the appropriate treatment of these rare lymphomas. More from the FDA:

Treatment was reported for 20 patients. Most had the implants removed, and some went on to receive treatment with radiation and/or chemotherapy. Overall, the outcomes appeared to be more favorable than would typically be expected for systemic ALCL. Outcomes were reported for 19 cases. Of these, 14 patients had no evidence of disease at last follow-up. However, most cases were diagnosed with early stage disease, and follow-up on many cases was limited.

At this time, the FDA is advising health care providers to be aware of the possible diagnosis, to carefully evaluate breast implant patients with suspected ALCL, and to report all confirmed cases to the agency.

As for patients, the situation is troubling. The incidence of these tumors is quite low, almost immeasurable, and the prognosis – based on the few treatment reports – seems good. But many women do have some fluid, contractures, thickening and other complications around the implant capsules. Most of those physical aberrations surrounding the implants are not lymphoma.

It’s a Pandora’s box, but one that needs be opened. The problem is that if we biopsy every abnormality – such as a minor thickening or fluid accumulation adjacent to a breast implant – we’ll hike up the costs and, more importantly, the complications associated: With every needle stick there’s a risk of infection, additional scar formation and more. On the other hand, you wouldn’t want to overlook a treatable, early-stage lymphoma. Women need to know of the risks of implants, which can only be determined if doctors thoroughly investigate these sorts of complications.

The LA Times quotes Dr. Phil Haeck, president of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons: “I think there’s reason to be concerned about this, but there shouldn’t be reason for panic,” he said. According to that article: “Signs of ALCL associated with implants ‘are pretty dramatic. There’s a lot of swelling and pain. They won’t miss it,’ Haeck said.”

I’m not so sure. Lymphoma, including ALCL in my experience as an oncologist, can be very subtle.

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