Tribute to a Fighter: S. Joyce Attis

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By Madeline Boscoe and Anne Rochon Ford

The movement to raise public awareness in Canada about concerns associated with breast implants lost one of its most hard-working and committed advocates recently. Joyce Attis, known to many as the voice for breast implant victims, died in Toronto on November 25, 2010, following complications from surgery.  She was 59.

Joyce, along with three other women, founded the Breast Implant Line of Canada in 1991 to provide support for women who, like her, had experienced the variety of problems and health concerns associated with silicone gel breast implants. Joyce’s adult life was scarred by a rash of health problems (including auto-immune disorders, back pain) but this did not deter her from answering tens of thousands of calls over the years from women who had also been affected by implants, offering compassionate support and sound advice, and producing a newsletter to help get the word out.  Her support for women who had been harmed did not stop there. Joyce was a tireless advocate for safety in medical devices, presenting before federal government regulators and elected officials numerous times in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, speaking to the media, and presenting before the 2005 public hearings on silicone gel breast implants in Ottawa. Like others before her, the personal became the political. 

Her activism changed the marketing practices of the industry and had an impact on medical practice. Women contemplating breast implants now learn that they are not permanent, can fail within months if not years and will need to be replaced within 20 years. Information on the risk of an autoimmune response and the hard, painful encapsulated implants is now available to those who wish to heed her example.
It is amazing that much of this organizing was done originally in pre-internet days and almost entirely by fax; at the Canadian Women’s Health Network, we kept extra ink cartridges on hand just for her!

Joyce and her team advocated for changes that should be made in the standards for medical device approval and the need for an organized approach to post marketing surveillance. They put these issues on the agenda of governments and the staff who work for them. 

Joyce took her concern to court in 1999 when, along with fellow plaintiff Alexandra Tesluk, she filed a class action suit that accused the federal government of negligence in performing its duty in ensuring the safety of medical device products. The class action suit was made on behalf of over 25,000 women who received silicone gel breast implants between 1962 and 1992. The Government of Canada fought this claim and three Ontario Court of Appeal judges agreed with this argument. Losing the case was an enormous blow to Joyce and the many women she represented.

Patrick Orr, a lawyer who worked on the class action claim for ten years, remarked “Joyce was an exceptionally brave and remarkable woman whose struggle for justice inspired those of us who knew her. It makes me so very sad to see her life end this way.”

In the light of her own declining health, Joyce was forced to close the Breast Implant Line in 2009, despite the fact that more and more women than ever have been implanted with a “new” silicone gel version, approved by Health Canada in 2007. She noted in her letter to supporters, “Let us hope that a new generation of women do not present with the same health issues nor become as ill as we...”.
It has also been frustrating to all of us that a breast implant registry has not been established, despite the concerted efforts made by women and successive private members bills calling for it. The establishment of a breast implant registry would allow the health effects and long term performance of the implant to be adequately researched.

Joyce was predeceased by Lori Dobson, of Alberta. They were both part of a national, if not international, network raising awareness, supporting women and pushing for change. Their names belong on the honour role for women who advocated for women.
We have lost a real gem.

Madeline Boscoe is the Executive Director of the Reach Community Health Centre in Vancouver.

Anne Rochon Ford is the Co-Director of the National Network on Environments and Women’s Health.