Throughout her 20s, a mysterious illness plagued YouTube star Karissa Pukas. Think depression, chronic fatigue, breakouts. Why? She suspects her implants had something to do with it.
Two silicone breast implants sit in a plastic bag in the back of my closet. The clear gummy capsules, which are about the size of cream-filled donuts, have taken on a murky yellow tinge—the only evidence that they once lived inside me.
Part of me wants to skeet shoot them, just blow them up in the sky. But then I’d have no reminder of what made me so sick for far too long.
I got my first push-up bra in ninth grade, years before I launched my YouTube channel in 2011. In my mind, everyone who was famous then had boobs that were larger than my B-cup breasts, and I wanted them too.
It’s why, when I was 22, about a year after I’d moved from Canada to Australia to be with my boyfriend Glen, I decided to get breast implants, selecting a surgeon and a pair of textured silicone gummy DDs at my doctor’s recommendation. My choice, he said, was leaps and bounds ahead of first-generation devices linked to complications like leakage and cancer.
I was so optimistic when I went in for the surgery, which cost $8,800 AUD (about $6,400 in today’s US dollars). In the footage I shot for my YouTube page on my way into the operating room, my excitement fills the screen. There’s no trace of fear.
The several-hour surgery went off without a hitch. And while I woke up without much pain, the first thing I noticed was a feeling of tightness, like an elephant was sitting on my chest. At first, I wore a compression bra to manage the swelling and stop the implants from moving so my body could develop the scar tissue that would attach them to my chest wall and rib cage. Although I went back to my regular activities about a month later, I had some back discomfort and began living at the chiropractor—working on my computer with the extra weight hurt. But I still took them out for a good spin, wearing the tight clothes I’d always envisioned filling out.
About six months after surgery, I started to feel out of whack: At first, it was anxiety. My work, my friends—everything felt overwhelming. Initially, I chalked it up to stress, but it only made sense on paper: Glen and I were in the middle of a move at the time, but our new place was just down the road from our old one, and I’d already moved across the world without missing a beat. Maybe I should sleep more, I thought. Maybe my hormones are a little off, I guessed—particularly after I began getting my period multiple times a month or waking up in the middle of the night with heart palpitations. Glen was like, “What’s happening to you?”
I also developed really bad body odor, predominantly on my left side. I smelled metallic, even though I’d only been using deodorants without added aluminum. I’d scrub my underarms in the shower, but the unnatural scent persisted.
And then there were the body aches: They permeated every part of me, with chronic joint pain in my hips, hands, and wrists. Although I’d always been pretty active, I began to notice that my typical workouts and fitness classes would leave me with muscle soreness for three or four days, about twice as long as usual. I constantly felt exhausted. My friends would tease, “Karissa, you’re a grandma. You don’t come out or don’t do anything. You freakin’ blow your nose and your neck goes out!”
Over the course of several years, as symptoms would crop up, I’d visit a local health clinic where doctors tested my blood and heard me out. But they couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. One physician accused me of fabricating my symptoms and told me to stop using their resources. Another diagnosed me with situational depression—something I’d never encountered before. The timing struck me as weird: I was living in Australia, my dream since I was a kid. I had already settled and loved my life; I just couldn’t deal with it nearly as well as I used to.
As time wore on, I began to believe it all had to do with aging into my late twenties. Little things would pop up, like strong-smelling urine. My sex drive disappeared. I lost some hair. My face broke out with blemishes as if I was going through puberty all over again. I’d get blurry vision, vertigo, and brain fog. I struggled to concentrate and overcome my fatigue.
But the reoccurring diarrhea was the worst: When I wasn’t running to the toilet or on it, I’d feel my belly gurgling.
In an attempt to manage my digestive issues, I met with a dietitian who put me on various diets to identify possible triggers. Nothing worked. “I just don’t know what’s wrong with you,” the dietitian told me after months of working together. “You must have a real massive gut issue.”
My quality of life slipped so much that it began to affect my relationship: By this point, Glen and I had been together for three or four years, and while I never doubted whether we’d last—he’s my person, and I’m his—my wavering health shifted our dynamic. It’s hard on both partners when someone is sick all the time, just struggling to get through the day. I felt guilty knowing I wasn’t nice to be around—I had no libido and was never in the mood to be playful or go out. I didn’t want Glen to sit home and baby me so I encouraged him to spend time with friends.
Through it all, I put on my makeup and kept up my videos, suppressing what was really going on because it’s my job. Yes, I felt inauthentic—absolutely. But I had to stay positive and upbeat and on brand, at least when I filmed: Weeks would go by without me publishing new videos, which are harder to fake than a smile for a picture. So I took to posting on Instagram instead. Even then, I’d get comments like, “You don’t seem like yourself.”
In an effort to stay transparent—my followers already knew I’d had implants—I put up a couple of videos on gut health. To this day, I believe they saved my life: In the spring of 2017, nearly five years after the procedure, someone left a comment urging me to look up “breast implant illness.”
At first, I thought, there’s no way my boobs have anything to do with this! I’d never dealt with any issues related to the implants. Besides, I liked my breasts. I’d paid for them and didn’t want to believe I’d done this to myself.
About a month after hearing about the condition, though, I began to feel pain in my chest and was diagnosed with costochondritis, or inflammation of the sternum. The issue was so close to my breasts that I began to put the pieces together: My downward spiral began six months after getting implants. Could everything be related?
My research surfaced endless stories of young, fit women whose health deteriorated after getting implants. They all had the same problems.
The hard part was that there’s no definitive test for the condition, which isn’t widely recognized by the medical community. When I brought it up to my doctors, they’d cite research that shows silicone implants are perfectly safe, dismissing my concerns. To me, this didn’t matter: I wanted them out. If explant surgery didn’t fix all my problems, I thought, it at least had to help.
On my own, I started looking into what explantation would entail: Basically, a surgeon goes back into your incisions and cauterizes, or burns, the area surrounding the implant and scar tissue so you don’t bleed out. They need to be careful because they’re working under the muscle and near your lungs, which could be pierced if things go wrong. Ideally, they perform a total capsulectomy en bloc, meaning they extract the entire implant and scar tissue capsule with no tears or leaks.
Instead of going back to my original surgeon, who was still performing breast implant procedures, I found a doctor in Newport Beach, California, flew home to Canada, and drove south with my parents for the surgery, which would cost $6,800.
On my way to the outpatient procedure earlier this year, I felt noticeably more nervous than I had six years ago. After everything I’d been through, I was so aware of the potential for complications that I worried about the outcome.
The procedure was surprisingly easy: I woke up with my parents by my side and felt grateful that it was over. They said I looked better after three-and-a-half hours of surgery than I did before, and I could see the difference too: The glassiness in my eyes and inflammation in my face were gone. The difference was unbelievable.
I took it slowly after surgery to make sure I didn’t pull any of the newly-stitched skin. The scars in the crease beneath each breast were roughly twice as long—about 3.5 inches—as the ones from my implantation.
On the Friday after my surgery, my surgeon handed me the implants in a plastic bag. They felt so hefty I couldn’t fathom how I’d ever carried them around. These were the fuckers that were ruining me?
Two weeks after surgery, I was back in Vancouver on the most beautifully sunny spring day when I decided to walk home from the other side of town. I’ll obviously get tired, I thought. I’ll just take a cab when I do. But I walked the roughly six-mile stretch. I remember calling my mom and said, “I did it! It felt so good!” I wasn’t even sore the next day.
Post-explantation, Karissa feels healthy and happy. She wants her followers to know that your chest size or shape does not determine your worth.
Now that six months have passed since my surgery, I’m 27 and can’t believe I lived at half-mass for so long. The amount of energy I have now is just amazing.
I still struggle with my gut health but can eat a more varied diet without feeling sick. And while my chest muscles still feel weak, and my hormones are still settling, my heart palpitations, fatigue, and joint pain—which was so severe every day—are all gone.
After everything I’ve been through, I’m not anti-plastic surgery and I’m not anti-breast implants. I’m pro-information. I think you should have absolutely every single fact that’s out there before surgically modifying your body, and there’s just more information available now.
At the end of the day, I chose to get implants and can’t blame anyone else for it. But I’m glad I can set my sights on new achievements.
When you think you’re sick and know something is wrong, don’t let yourself be dismissed. Anything, I realized, can really throw your body out of whack—but you don’t have to settle for feeling shitty.
If you have silicone breast implants and believe you’re experiencing adverse effects, report them to your doctor and to the FDA, which will hold a public Medical Devices Advisory Committee meeting in 2019 to ensure that patients and healthcare providers continue to have accurate, scientifically sound information about breast implant safety and effectiveness, according to a September 2018 agency statement.