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Cosmetic surgery: What the doctors won't tell you

by Siv Palm, staff writer


Surgery is a serious procedure that causes stress to your body and always poses a risk of infections, pain, death, or simply the doctor having a bad day at the office. If you are ill, surgery may be your only path to healing, and you should not be afraid of it. But if you are healthy and considering elective cosmetic surgery, here are some facts most doctors won’t tell you, and some other things to consider.


Elective cosmetic surgeries include nose jobs, face lifts, liposuction, the use of implants in cheeks, buttocks, breasts, and so on. People undergo cosmetic surgery to reconstruct their looks after accidents, illness, fire, in which cases it may not be elective. But if they do it simply because they aren’t happy with the way they look, they have a choice. TV shows such as Extreme Makeover and The Swan are powerful advertisers for the cosmetic surgery industry. They show the extreme results and happy endings for the ugly ducklings, but they do not show or tell the whole story.

On TV, patients are put into a light sleep during the surgery. This is presented as a better alternative to the more dangerous and expensive narcosis. But light sleep also means that the patient is likely to wake up during surgery. For some people this can be a traumatic experience, especially when they have not been warned first that it might happen. Anna (not her real name), a young HPU student, was 17 when she had breast reconstruction surgery. She woke up during surgery; something she did not know was possible. “I didn’t feel pain, but I did feel him poking around in there, working on me.” Anna said it was creepy at the time, but she hasn’t thought much about it since.

The TV shows don’t prepare future patients for how many doctors are more technicians than professionals. Technicians may not treat the patient as a person with feelings. “Anna” experienced medical insensitiveness when she was first examined by a doctor for her breast operation. “He said he wanted to take out the stuff that wasn’t good, triple the size of my breasts, and then sow them up like a tobacco pouch.” Anna eventually found another doctor who was willing to perform the surgery without enlarging her breasts.

If the surgery is a breast enlargement, or any other surgery that includes the use of implants, one should also know that the implants are foreign objects that the body may recognize. To shield itself, the body will start enclosing the implants in scar tissue. The scar tissue can make breasts hard, even stone hard, after some time. This is why enhanced breasts are rumored to be hard and feel unnatural.

Surgery also involves surface scaring. Scarring varies from person to person, and also depends on what kind of cut the doctor chooses to make in order insert the implants. For breast implants the procedure that causes the least scarring is when the doctor makes a small incision under the breast, and inserts the implants from there. It is also common to make an incision from the nipple area and down. Both techniques will get the job done, but the patient may not be equally happy with the scars left.

No matter what incision, or type of surgery, remember that the skin on a scar is new skin, and needs to be kept out of the sun. New skin burns easy, as it is not used to sun, and burning will make the scar more visible.

Scarring is a minor surgical risk. Worse things can happen, even with the best doctors money can buy. Remember the case of billionaire J. Howard Marshall II, who married the now infamous Anna Nicole Smith? Before Smith, he suddenly found himself single at 86 when his wife, an ex-stripper in her mid-40s, died on the operating table during a breast enhancement surgery. This was accidental, which reminds us that even if you can afford the best doctors, accidents can still happen.

What are worse than accidents are the occasional frauds. There have been several cases where doctors with no surgical background, and even people with no medical background, have set up practices and operated on people.

This fall, Denmark aired its own version of the American TV series Extreme Makeover. The show had a doctor perform both facial and breast surgery. He was, in reality, a dermatologist with no surgical background. It is unclear whether the TV channel knew about this before the scandal reached the front pages.

Breast enhancement is the most popular form of elective cosmetic surgery. Brazil ran out of silicone implants in the run up for the 2003 carnival season. Brazil may be in a class of its own though: In 2001, its representative in the Miss Universe Pageant had been through 19 cosmetic surgeries before, at 22, she became Brazil’s hope in the pageant.

Silicone implants are still popular; even though it is known that about half of them will start leaking, or simply burst, within seven to 10 years. After 20 years, 95 percent will break.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) published a study in 2000 reporting that silicone leaked more often than commonly believed: 70 percent of the women studied experienced one or more cases of leakage in 12-year-old implants. Two years later, a Canadian study showed that women with implants were hospitalized four times as often as women without implants. They also went to heart specialists, chiropractors, and other specialists more frequently.

The European Union (EU) issued a warning against silicon implants in 2003. It wanted to ban breast implants for minors, and called for more accessible information about the health risks of these surgeries.

So far France is the only EU country that has banned silicone implants. Canada banned it in 1992, and the United States has restricted the use of silicone. This means that silicone is only permitted if the doctor finds medical reasons for using it.

Countless women have filed lawsuits against silicone implant manufacturers and the doctors who perform such surgeries. The leaking silicone is said to cause serious illnesses like chronic autoimmune diseases, where the immune defense destroys the body’s own cells.

No doubt implants and other types of cosmetic surgery have helped a lot of people. One never knows who will be the lucky one who doesn’t experience any serious side effects, and it’s up to each person to make his or her own choice. But make an informed educated decision, because your health is at stake.



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