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Bras Cause Breast Cancer: Myth or Fact?

Let's Examine an Old Internet and Email Rumor

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Updated March 17, 2010

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Pastel Bras by Jenny Downing

Pastel Bras by Jenny Downing

Photo © Jenny Downing

Bras may lift and separate, smooth out or point out the way, provide support or inspire fantasies. Bras also have inspired rumors - including the idea that bras cause breast cancer. Before you burn your bras, let's consider the rumor and balance it with some facts.

Breasts in Bras Behaving Badly
Here's how the rumor goes: Women who normally wear a bra for 12 or more hours a day develop breast cancer at higher rates that women who never wear bras. In different versions of this rumor, the toxic bras may be tight fitting, fit badly, or have underwires. As a result of this routine restriction, the breast's lymph system is blocked, causing the accumulation of toxins inside the breast - which causes breast cancer. The myth goes on to propose that breasts which swing free of a bra actually massage the mammary lymph system and constantly cleanse themselves of carcinogens.

The rumor has bad assumptions: Your breast's lymph system does not drain into the main part of your breast. Instead, as anyone who has had a sentinel node biopsy can tell you, the lymph system drains out of the breast into your underarm lymph nodes. Bras - even compression bras - can't prevent the circulation of blood and lymph from your breast. Breast cancer occurs when mutated genes cause cells to grow like wildfire, and we don't know what causes those genetic mutations.

Running Down The Rumor to Its Source
Sydney Ross Singer and Soma Grismaijer wrote a book in 1995 titled, "Dressed to Kill." Their book was the result of their observations - not the results of a scientific medical study. Singer and Grismaijer reported that women in westernized cultures who wore bras had a higher rate of breast cancer than women in traditional cultures who rarely wore a bra. Their observations did not include known risk factors for breast cancer, so data about diet, weight, exercise, start of menstruation, pregnancies, and breastfeeding was not considered.

Singer has degrees in biology and anthropology, while Grismaijer has worked as an optician. They have written many similar books, and their current campaign warns of the dangers of sleeping in a horizontal position. They say "flat sleeping" causes brain compression, leading to Alzheimer's disease, migraines, sleep apnea, and glaucoma. Singer and Grismaijer claim that bras and flat sleeping are both unnatural and unhealthy. The authors say that many people believe their warnings, accept their observations as truth, and buy their books. As far as I know, none of their disciples have remained perfectly disease-free nor have they attained immortality.

Short History of Breast Cancer and Bras
Breast cancer is an ancient disease, and in the days before X-rays, appropriate surgeries, and other modern treatments was both well known and fatal. Bras are a fairly recent invention. Luman L Chapman added cups to the corset in 1863, and Marie Tucek was given a patent in 1893 for a garment called a breast supporter. Finally, in 1913, Mary Phelps Jacob put two silk hankies together with some pink ribbon, forming a modest and less restraining version of the bra. If you take the long view of human history, breast cancer beats bras for longevity. Researchers are looking for more basic causes than the advent of bras to explain the increase in cases of breast cancer.

Persistent Myth Rooted in Control
Dr. Susan Love, in her Breast Book, says that we listen to the "bras cause breast cancer" myth because we want to blame something external that we can control. A diagnosis of cancer brings on feelings of frustration, fear, and a sense that our body has betrayed us. Cancer starts inside our own cells, as a result of processes that science still can't explain. Love says, "You find people less wanting to think about birth control pills, hormone replacement therapy and fertility drugs," she says, "and more about pesticides, bras and deodorant." We want control over life and health - cancer breaks that illusion.

Possible Side Effects Of Wearing Bras
Women have had problems while wearing bras. Breast pain, skin irritation, or even contact with an exposed underwire can cause discomfort. Speaking of those wires - some women are allergic to the metal and may develop a rash when a wire gets out of bounds. If your breasts are fibrocystic, or if your breasts are growing due to pregnancy, bras can certainly become uncomfortable. Very full breasts may cause back pain, muscle tension, or even headaches. Have a professional bra fitting, or find your proper bra size to avoid bothersome bras.

Medical Science Busts The Myth
The American Cancer Society says that no scientifically valid studies have been done to prove the truth of the "bras cause breast cancer" myth. ACS mentions one epidemiologic study that compares rates of breast cancer for braless women and bra-wearing women. This study reported that risk was slightly less for braless women. But the researchers admit that bras themselves don't seem to be the smoking gun. Most women who go braless are fairly lean and small breasted. Women who have full breasts or who are overweight wear bras for support and comfort. Having extra body weight or having more than the average amount of breast tissue are factors that increases your risk for developing breast cancer.

Bras Are Not to Blame, But Go Braless If You Want to
The National Cancer Institute agrees with the ACS, and does not list bras among breast cancer risk factors. Alcohol and tobacco use, poor diet, a sedentary lifestyle, and excess weight may all contribute to increased risk for breast cancer - because these may raise your estrogen levels. Estrogen fuels most cases of breast cancer, so choose carefully when deciding about medications, food and drink that affect your hormone levels. Learn your personal risk factors and make lifestyle changes that can lower your risk. A bra is not a necessity, so wearing one is really just a personal choice. If it gives you peace of mind to skip wearing a bra, then do so. Just keep in mind that bras do not cause breast cancer - not even the ones that are shaped like bullets.

Sources:

Bras and Breast Cancer. American Cancer Society. Copyright 2010.

Dr. Susan Love's Breast Book. Fourth Edition. Susan M. Love, M. D.

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