October 02, 2000 12:00 PM

After 10 years of living with saline breast implants, Betsey Johnson was fed up with the faux full-figured look. “I felt sexy,” the 58-year-old designer says, “but if I was Rollerblading or body-surfing I’d be throwing my arm up over my breasts and thinking, Whoa, gotta protect these foreign objects!”

So when her left implant burst last December, Johnson figured it was time to have both removed. What she didn’t know was that restoring “my own fabulous flatness” wasn’t the only favor her faulty implant was about to impart. Soon after her surgery, while feeling her breasts for scar tissue, Johnson discovered a tiny lump in her left breast that hadn’t shown up on a mammogram eight months before. A biopsy revealed cancer. Because Johnson didn’t do self-exams, she likely wouldn’t have found the lump until her next mammogram. “In a crazy way,” says Dr. Alexander Swistel, Johnson’s surgeon, “the fact that her implant collapsed may have saved her life.”

Swistel adds that Johnson, who underwent a lumpectomy and radiation that same month, has an “excellent” long-term prognosis. And she remains a fan of big breasts. (After all, her clothes look best on busty types—she even hired Playboy Playmates rather than flat-chested runway models to show off her spring 2001 collection.) “I love breast implants, and no doctor ever suggested to me that they are dangerous,” she says, “just that extra care should be taken during a breast exam.”

After hiding her condition from everyone but close pals and her daughter Lulu, 25, creative director of her New York City design company, the twice-divorced Johnson went public in mid-September. She is now designing a car for General Motors’ breast-cancer initiative Concept Cure and preaching early detection. “Don’t be shy—make your breasts your best friends,” she says. “It’s a friendship that could save your life.”

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