Actress Suzanne Somers isn’t afraid to let you know she’s proud of her breasts.
But the 71-year-old’s positive body image and fondness for her bosom are about more than skin-deep vanity.
Since being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000, she’s become an outspoken — if not controversial — advocate for nontraditional breast cancer treatment.
That same year, she underwent a partial mastectomy (commonly referred to as a lumpectomy) and radiation treatment.
She beat cancer but was left with a partial breast.
Rather than choosing to have a standard breast reconstruction procedure, Somers waited 11 years and again elected for a nontraditional operation.
In 2012, Somers had an experimental stem cell fat grafting procedure to reconstruct her breast.
Somers was so happy with the results of her new breast that she claimed she’d “whip it out” to show all her friends — so much so that her husband, Alan Hamel, asked her to stop.
Now, roughly six years since that procedure, Somers still loves to talk about her breast. She did so, apparently unprompted, in an interview with Us Magazine, in which she said, “This is a regrown breast. This is really mine.”
The phrase was immediate fodder for gossip sites eager to dish on an apparent scientific marvel: a regrown breast.
But Somers here, like some of her previous writing on breast cancer, borders on misinformation, if not dangerous inaccuracy.
“I would say that her statement is not accurate. It’s a significant exaggeration of what she had done, and it’s an exaggeration of the state of the art and the reconstruction options that women have available to them,” Dr. Oren Lerman, director of breast reconstruction at Lenox Hill Hospital, told Healthline.
He added, “The procedure that she had done is not actually a tried-and-true method of regrowing the breast. There is no such procedure that can regrow the breast.”
Understanding why her tale of regrowing a breast is inaccurate requires a little history and a little science.
Injecting fat into the breast, a process known as autologous fat transplantation, is an incredibly common procedure in breast reconstruction. Fat from the patient is obtained using liposuction, cleaned, and then injected into the operation site.
However, the use of stem cells (adipose-derived stromal cells) in the procedure, which supposedly yields better results, is relatively new — even more so at the time when Somers had it done.
This so-called cell-assisted lipotransfer is credited to Japanese researchers at the University of Tokyo, who described it in 2008 in the journal Aesthetic Plastic Surgery.
Somers discovered the procedure and sought out a doctor in the United States to perform it.
The problem with lipoinjection in breast reconstruction or enhancement is that when the fat is injected, a portion of it won’t “take” — meaning it will essentially die off. Fine-tuning the procedure to ensure the maximal amount of fat will survive at the injection site is an ongoing area of research.
Using stem cells alongside injected fat was theorized to be one way to improve survival of the tissue — and that’s exactly what the Japanese researchers found.
“The preliminary results suggest that CAL [cell-assisted lipotransfer] is effective and safe for soft tissue augmentation and superior to conventional lipoinjection,” the authors wrote.
When Somers had the procedure done in 2012, she was one of only a few who had ever had it done in the United States. Dr. Joel Aronowitz, a plastic surgeon in Los Angeles, performed the operation as a clinical trial, meaning that it was officially overseen by the Institutional Review Board.
“Other people in the U.S. had undergone it, but she was the first person to undergo it in a more official way, if you will, in a IRB-supervised approved trial,” Aronowitz told Healthline.
In the six years since he carried out the procedure, cell-assisted lipotransfer has still not become commonplace in the United States. Subsequent research has yet to bear out the promises of the initial hypotheses of better fat survival rate at the injection site.
One review from 2015 concluded, “This technique is clearly a promising addition to the armamentarium of reconstructive and esthetic medicine, yet good evidence for its safety and efficacy is still lacking, and the legal framework for it remains unclear.
Lerman echoes those conclusions.
“So, at the time it was being thought of as a novel way of improving the operation. But in no way, shape, or form has it become the standard of care. It has not been proven to be dramatically efficacious, and you cannot state and you cannot describe it as a new operation that somehow allows the breast to regrow,” he said.
Aronowitz, who still performs the operation, told Healthline he and others knowledgeable of the procedure “would agree that there definitely is a benefit in more permanent volume and less inflammation from adding stem cells.”
He added, “I think Suzanne’s experience would bear that out also.”
But whether the operation was successful or not is still muddied by Somers’ choice of language.
Asked whether he thought Somers was accurate in describing her breast as “regrown,” Aronowitz told Healthline, “I think it can be misleading if you don’t understand the facts. So, when you say regrew, that’s absolutely true, but it’s not true that you’re regrowing the skin or the nipple. So, a woman who has had her breast removed and she has a scar across her chest, she should not be led to believe that you can magically regrow a breast by augmenting, just adding fat, no matter how good it is.”
In a sense, it depends on how and to what degree you understand the meaning of “regrow” — especially among a lay population that might still be mystified by the potential of stem cell technology. Such a claim could be confusing or misleading.
In the sense that stem cells could allow for greater survival of fat cells and subsequent growth from those cells — that’s true.
But a breast with all its complex mechanisms, including skin, nipple, and blood vessels, won’t “regrow” no matter how many stem cells are used.
“I’m sure that there are cells that are growing, but she didn’t regrow her breast,” said Lerman.
For women with breast cancer, there are several options available for treatment, and many will have different effects on the breast.
For example, a mastectomy is a surgery to completely remove a breast. A partial mastectomy is known as a breast-conserving surgery, because only the cancer-containing tissue is removed, conserving the rest.
Radiation and chemotherapy are also often employed to treat breast cancer. Somers did undergo radiation therapy but declined chemotherapy. She instead opted to use Iscador, an extract made from European mistletoe.
While some studies have indicated that treatment with this extract can lead to improved survival, it still lacks federal approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Breast reconstruction options will vary depending on the severity of the cancer and the operation to remove it. A woman who has had a full mastectomy will have different breast reconstruction options than one who has had a lumpectomy due to the size and shape of remaining breast tissue.
In short: Breast cancer treatment and reconstruction are highly personal.
“The fact that she did some nontraditional therapies and did not do some traditional therapies and it worked out for her means nothing to the average woman,” said Dr. Alice Police, regional director of breast surgery at Northwell Health Westchester.
News of Somers’ “regrown” breast appeared to be yet another pseudoscientific claim from a woman whose history of dubious claims around breast cancer have apparently soured her reputation among experts and advocates in the field.
“A beautiful, healthy-looking celebrity has a lot of influence on the average woman. Particularly one who battled a very common and troubling disease like breast cancer,” said Police.
“Many women may be under the impression that doing what she did, because she did so well, is what they ought to do. When in reality, breast cancer is hundreds of different diseases and there are many different kinds, and what Suzanne Somers did may not be right for the next woman.”
Call it the Suzanne Somers effect or the Angelina Jolie effect, but celebrities can influence the decisions people make about their health — for better or worse.
Though they may be well-intentioned, celebrities are usually not medical professionals, and in their rush to advocate, facts can fall through the cracks.
Discuss any health concerns you may have with your doctor and evaluate the options available before making a decision about the treatment that’s best for you.