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In this week's issue of PEOPLE, the former NASCAR driver shares how she learned to listen to her body after her breast implants caused years of significant health problems. The 40-year-old says she got her breast implants in November 2014, because she thought "it would pull my whole look together and make me feel more feminine and sexy."
Although the first three years with implants went well for Patrick, in 2017 she started noticing changes in her body and energy level, including fatigue, weight gain, dryness and hair loss.
"I thought maybe my hormones were off, so I just said, 'Dig deeper, Danica, try harder,'" she says of her persistent health problems.
A year later, Patrick says one of her breasts turned rock-hard, and the other followed. "For so many years I didn't hug people tight because I didn't feel like pushing these little balloons into them. Whenever I was with a guy, I could not stop thinking that they knew they were fake," Patrick explains.
"I went down a pretty deep rabbit hole," she says of trying to get answers. "I had every test that could be done."
It wasn't until early 2022 that she realized her implants may be the problem after seeing a series of videos on social media about Breast Implant Illness, or BII.
BII symptoms have been reported with all types of breast implants and can occur immediately after implantation or years later. The top five most common symptoms associated with BII are fatigue, brain fog, joint pain, anxiety and hair loss, according to the FDA.
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Along with BII, the FDA has identified a possible association between breast implants and the development of breast implant-associated anaplastic large cell lymphoma (BIA-ALCL), a type of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
"When there's an inflammatory response, it wears your body out. So for women experiencing BII, their system is just not working as it should," says board-certified plastic surgeon Dr. Shaun Parson, who treated Patrick. "It's important for women to put their health first and their aesthetic goals second."
In March, Patrick decided to get her implants removed and she says the results were instant. She hopes other women experiencing similar symptoms won't feel so alone.
"Trust your intuition," she urges. "Get them removed, and see how you feel."
"On a scale of one to 10, I'm probably a six right now. But I take better care of myself now than I ever have," Patrick says since getting her implants removed. "Chasing perfection is a dead-end street. Learning how to come home to yourself is a beautiful thing."
For more on Danica Patrick, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands everywhere Friday.