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Sufferer of rare cancer takes legal action against manufacturers of Allergan breast implants

A woman who had a double mastectomy in a bid to combat what she believed was her hereditary predisposition to breast cancer has had to accept that the breast implants with which her chest was reconstructed after the operation have caused her to develop a rare type of cancer associated specifically with breast implants.

Posted on 23 March 2020

Susan Axelby, from Sheffield, has suffered years of depression and has even contemplated taking her own life during particularly low periods of mental health caused by worries over the potential for cancer and a series of failures of breast implants, each of which led to further surgery.

The years of relentless anxiety and disappointment have left Susan unable to return to work.

She was diagnosed with Breast Implant Associated Anaplastic Large Cell Lymphoma (BIA-ALCL), a rare type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2019.

Now, represented by Leigh Day solicitor, Zahra Nanji, Susan has now issued legal proceedings against the breast implant company, Allergan Limited, that manufactured the products with which she was implanted through the NHS between 1999 and 2011.

The case was issued at the High Court last week.

Susan underwent a mastectomy operation in May 1999 because she has a strong family history of breast cancer: her mother, her mother’s twin sister and their mother in turn, all suffered the disease. At the time the NHS trust which was treating her could not offer the genetic screening which is now available and anxiety caused by regular mammograms led Susan to finally opt for the mastectomy and reconstructive surgery.

As part of the surgery Susan was fitted with Allergan macro-textured implants, a product which has been used extensively within the NHS for post-mastectomy reconstruction.
However, the implants did not settle properly and she had to undergo further surgery in 2001 to be fitted with a left sided breast expander. This was also a product manufactured by Allergan.

Ten years later, Susan underwent a ‘trimming procedure’ to address discomfort caused by overhang of breast tissue within her bra. Pleased with the results, she then took up the offer of further implants to be provided under the NHS through surgery six months later in October, 2011. She was fitted with bilateral, again Allergan, macro-textured implants.

However, further problems developed in her left breast and eight years later, in March, 2019, Susan was diagnosed with BIA-ALCL.

The adjacent implant has now been removed and Susan will have the right-sided implant removed very soon. She will not have any further surgery.

Susan has now discovered that the preventative and reconstructive surgery that she underwent was unnecessary, because despite her family history of breast cancer, she did not have any heightened risk of the disease.

Susan’s action against Allergan is being taken under the Consumer Protection Act 1987 on the basis that she was implanted with a product which, she argues, was not as safe as people are generally entitled to expect – by reason of the fact that she developed BIA-ALCL directly as a result of her Allergan implants.

Susan said:

“It was my choice to have preventative surgery, but I believed the Allergan implants I was given through the NHS treatment were safe. I endured years of worry and a series of operations and now I discover that the very implants which were intended to help me have in the end caused a cancer I was trying to avoid.”

Leigh Day solicitor Zahra Nanji said:

“Allergan implants were suspended across Europe in December 2018 and withdrawn from the worldwide market in July 2020. Their risk of BIA-ALCL is low, but serious, and very real as Susan’s case shows. 

“Hers is a particularly traumatic story because of the several operations she has had to undergo, each to address an unsatisfactory degeneration in the previous implant.

“The sad reality in Susan’s case is that she went on to develop the cancer diagnosis, which she had undergone surgery to avoid, as a direct result of the implants provided during the course of that surgery.

“The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency latest figures show there are 61 women with Allergan implants in the UK who have been diagnosed with BIA-ALCL.

“Some women who received Allergan and other textured implants through the NHS and are concerned about developing ALCL have been refused access to funding for removal. They are cancer survivors who are now being refused access to removal of a product provided through the NHS which exposes them to a man-made risk of cancer.”