Bras and breast cancer

Does wearing a tight-fitting bra – or any bra for that matter – for many hours every day increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer?
This idea has been hotly debated ever since Sydney Ross Singer and Soma Grismaijer claimed in their book Dressed to Kill: The Link Between Breast Cancer and Bras that 3 out of 4 women who wore their bras 24 hours per day developed breast cancer.

Despite credible evidence (presented below), cancer organizations dismiss the bra-cancer link, claiming it is a myth.

But what if they’re wrong? Let’s take a look at the evidence.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women in Ireland.

Around 3,500 women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year. 1 in 8 women in Ireland will develop breast cancer in their lifetime according to the HSE. The World Cancer Research Fund International figures for 2020 showed that cancer incidence in women in Ireland was the third highest in the world behind Denmark and Belgium. That year 748 women died from breast cancer. The National Breast Cancer Foundation says 60-70% of people with breast cancer have no connection to known risk factors.

More women fear breast cancer than heart disease, although heart disease kills more of them. Even among the cancers, lung cancer kills more women than breast cancer does.

So, breast cancer risk reduction is a big deal.

Of course, some risk factors (e.g. age, inherited mutations etc) cannot be controlled but there are others you can control including:

  • Being obese
  • Using oral birth control pills
  • Having your first child at an older age
  • Taking postmenopausal hormone therapy
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Smoking
  • Lack of Physical Activity
  • Poor Diet

Does wearing a tight-fitting bra increase your risk of breast cancer?


If it does, then it is a risk factor you can control.

Let’s look at both sides of the debate.

Wearing a bra doesn’t increase breast cancer risk, says ICS

The Irish Cancer Society said in this article “this is a myth and there’s no clinical basis for the claim” The American Cancer Society, Cancer Research UK, and all the main cancer charities say the same thing, based on a single 2014 study (aka The Hutchinson study) which found no association between wearing a bra and breast cancer risk.

However, there are some flaws to this study.

In her LinkedIn article (edited here for brevity) former BBC journalist CJ Grace pointed out the following:

  1. It had no control group of women who did not wear bras to compare to those who did. Having no control group of bra-free women in a study looking at whether bras cause cancer would be like studying the link between cancer and smoking without looking at any non-smokers to compare to the smokers.

  2. The Hutchinson study, by stating in the Abstract “there is a scarcity of credible scientific studies addressing this issue,” ignores previous research showing a link between bras and breast cancer. One notable example is a Harvard study (CC Hsieh, D Trichopoulos (1991), published in the European Journal of Cancer and Clinical Oncology 27(2):131-135.). It found that “Premenopausal women who do not wear bras had half the risk of breast cancer compared with bra users…” Furthermore, peer-reviewed epidemiological studies published in 2015 and 2016 have shown a significant link between bras and breast cancer.

  3. The Hutchinson Study chose to look at only post-menopausal women when previous research, such as that Harvard study, had shown greater negative effects of bra-wearing in premenopausal women than in postmenopausal women. This is because of survival bias, in that the older ladies had already survived with or without bras, and those who might have died off by then from earlier breast cancers are not included in the study.

Sydney Ross Singer, co-author Dressed to Kill: The Link Between Breast Cancer and Bras had this comment on the study:
“This single, un-reproduced, flawed study has been used by the ACS and Komen Foundation, and others who follow them, as final proof of no bra-cancer link. While conflicting studies are typical of scientific research, this one study has been considered the first and last word on this issue by the cancer “experts” who deny the bra-cancer link.”

The 2014 Hutchinson study

  • 1991 Harvard study Breast size, handedness and breast cancer risk. European Journal of Cancer and Clinical Oncology.
    This study found “Premenopausal women who do not wear bras had half the risk of breast cancer compared with bra users…”
  • 1991-93 U.S. Bra and Breast Cancer Study by Singer and Grismaijer, published in Dressed To Kill: The Link Between Breast Cancer and Bras (Second Edition, Square One Publishers, 2018).
    This study found that bra-free women have about the same incidence of breast cancer as men. 24/7 bra wearing increases incidence over 100 times that of a bra-free woman.
  • Follow-up study by Singer and Grismaijer, published in Get It Off!.
    This study looked at 24 case histories of breast cancer in a culture where half the women are bra-free. The women getting breast cancer were all wearing bras. Given women with the same genetics and diet and living in the same village, the ones getting breast disease were the ones wearing bras for work.

Cancer of the breast occurs largely among civilized women. In those countries where breasts are allowed to be exposed, that is, are not compressed or irritated by clothing, it is rare.

Dr. John Mayo (one of the founders of the Mayo Clinic), Susceptibility to Cancer” Annals of Surgery 1931.

What a study of 4,700 women showed

In their book Dressed to Kill: The Link Between Breast Cancer and Bras, (Avery/Penguin Putnam, 1995; ISCD Press, 2014), husband-and-wife medical anthropology team Sydney Ross Singer and Soma Grismaijer claimed that women who wear underwire bras for 12 hours a day have a much higher risk of developing breast cancer than women who do not wear bras. They concluded that bras restrict the lymph system, which results in a build-up of toxins in the breasts and that this can lead to cancer. 

Their book has its roots in a personal crisis in the authors’ lives, when Soma was shocked to find a lump in her breast while pregnant. Looking for clues regarding the cause of the lump led them to develop a new theory and to conduct an extensive survey of nearly 5,000 United States women, half of whom had breast cancer, in an attempt to uncover a hidden cause of this devastating disease.

The study data indicated that the longer you wear your bra each day, the greater the likelihood of your developing breast cancer. They reported that:

  • 3 out of 4 women who wore their bras 24 hours per day developed breast cancer.
  • 1 out of 7 women who wore bras more than 12 hour per day, developed breast cancer.
  • 1 out of 152 women who wore their bras less than 12 hours per day got breast cancer.
  • Only 1 out of 168 women who wore bras rarely (or never) were diagnosed with breast cancer.

In an article published on Acedmia.edu Sydney Ross Singer said:
“Our study was conducted on approximately 4700 U.S. women, about half of whom had breast cancer.

We asked these women about their past bra-wearing attitudes and habits. What we discovered was that the women in the cancer group had a history of wearing bras tighter and longer than did the non-cancer group. In fact, many women in the cancer group slept with their bras on. Almost none were bra-free. This differed greatly from the non-cancer group. When the results were analysed, they revealed that women who wear bras over 12 hours daily have a dramatically increased risk of developing breast cancer compared to bra-free women. In fact, a bra-free woman has about the same chances of developing breast cancer as a man.”

Elsewhere he wrote
“When Soma and I did our research for Dressed To Kill we were not aware of how easily women can recover from fibrocystic breast disease by foregoing the bra. Bras, by their very design, alter the shape of the breasts for fashion. To alter breast shape you have to apply constant pressure on the breast tissue. That is why bras are elastic garments.

This pressure from the bra impedes the circulation in the breast tissue, specifically, the circulation of the lymphatic system. This system is composed of microscopic vessels that originate in the breast tissue and drain the tissue of fluid, which is directed through these vessels to the lymph nodes.

The lymphatic vessels are extremely thin and small, and have no pump, such as the heart, to propel its contents forward. As a result, lymphatic vessels are easily constricted by external pressure, such as that applied to the breast tissue constantly by the brassiere. It is compression of these lymph vessels that prevents the proper draining of the breast tissue, leading to fluid accumulation in the breast.

Medically, this is called lymphedema of the breast, secondary to constriction from the bra. This fluid accumulation leads to breast tenderness and pain, and ultimately the fluid develops into cysts. The cysts over time become hard, and we have a picture of the creation of fibrocystic breast disease. Within days or weeks of ending breast constriction by bras, the breast tissue is allowed to flush out this excess fluid, cysts disappear, and breast pain and tenderness are minimal if at all present.

From our research with hundreds of women, getting rid of the bra has resulted in remarkable recovery of breast health in over 95% of the cases. Since foregoing the bra for a month is cost-free and risk-free, and may prove beneficial, we encourage all women who wear bras to partake in a self-study to see for themselves, on themselves, whether their bras have been damaging their breasts.

Keep in mind that breast disease is only a problem in bra wearing cultures. Women who are bra-free have the same breast cancer incidence as men. And don’t wait for the cancer detection and treatment industry to endorse this information before you try it. Billions of dollars are made each year treating breast cancer. Nobody will make money by women loosening up to prevent this disease. The prevention of breast disease is up to each individual woman. Just stop binding the breasts with bras in the name of fashion and begin to love yourself and respect your body.”

Among those who acknowledge the bra/breast cancer risk connection, it’s widely held that a tight-fitting bra restricts the lymph nodes around the breast and underarm area, preventing toxins from being processed through them and flushed out of the body. Accumulated toxins anywhere in the body increase the risk for cancer.

Dr. Habib Sadeghi

What about men and breast cancer?

Men don’t wear bras, but they get breast cancer. So, does this prove bras have no effect on breast cancer risk? Of course not. It may be quite the opposite in fact. While there are obvious biological differences between male and female breasts that could have a bearing on risk, the fact is that men and women share many of the same risks and get the same types of breast cancer. Yet, the incidence of breast cancer among women is more than 100 times that of men. 

The HSE says risk factors for male breast cancer include:

  • age – getting older increases your risk.
  • genes and family history – inheriting faulty versions of genes called BRCA1 or BRCA2 increases your risk of breast cancer.
  • conditions that can increase the level of oestrogen in the body – including obesity, Klinefelter syndrome and scarring of the liver (cirrhosis).
  • previous radiotherapy to the chest area

Many physicians and researchers now agree that wearing a tight-fitting bra can cut off lymph drainage, which can contribute to the development of breast cancer

Dr Joseph Mercola

Bras can impede lymph flow.


Dr. Michael Schacter, M.D., Schachter Center for Complementary Medicine in his articleThe Prevention and Complementary Treatment of Breast Cancer says:

“Over 85 percent of the lymph fluid flowing from the breast drains to the armpit lymph nodes. Most of the rest drains to the nodes along the breastbone. Bras and other external tight clothing can impede flow.

The nature of the bra, the tightness, and the length of time worn, will all influence the degree of blockage of lymphatic drainage. Thus, wearing a bra might contribute to the development of breast cancer as a result of cutting off lymphatic drainage, so that toxic chemicals are trapped in the breast.”

Lymph nodes may become enlarged due to an infection, injury and cancer.
Pic: Author: www.scientificanimations.com, Source: Wikipedia, License: Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

Of particular interest is when breast cancer organizations antagonistic to the issue declare the bra/cancer link to be “misinformation” or a “myth”…They then encourage regular mammograms, cancer prevention drug therapy…and even preventative mastectomies…Of course, it is better to remove the bra instead of the breasts, but bra removal is not a billable procedure.

Sydney Ross Singer

Why do cancer organizations still deny the bra-cancer connection?

The answer may simply be the so-called Semmelweis reflex – a human behavioral tendency to stick to pre-existing beliefs and to reject new knowledge (despite adequate evidence) because it contradicts entrenched dogmas, beliefs, or paradigms.

The Semmelweis reflex is named after Dr Ignaz Semmelweis, who discovered that the incidence of puerperal fever – which killed many women within the first three days after childbirth back in the 19th century – could be drastically cut by hand disinfection.

After he ordered the students to wash their hands in a solution of chlorinated lime before each examination the death rates plummeted, saving countless women’s lives.

But Semmelweis’s observations conflicted with the established scientific and medical opinions of the time and his ideas were rejected by the medical community. 

As a result, it took about twenty years for handwashing to catch on around Europe, resulting in the preventable deaths of thousands of new mothers.

We saw the same thing in more recent times when (despite the evidence) doctors were denying the cancer risks of smoking and actually promoted cigarettes in paid advertisements.

Are we seeing the same thing with bras and breast cancer?

In an article published on Medium.com, Dr. Habib Sadeghi, founder of Be Hive of Healing, an integrative medical center wrote:
“While there is a legitimate reason for concern when it comes to bras and breast cancer, some simple changes, along with maintaining an already existing healthy lifestyle, can result in a drastic reduction in breast cancer risk. Some of these include:

  • Reduce the time you wear your bra by several hours each day.
  • Try going bra-free once you come home from work instead of wearing it up until bedtime.
  • Never wear your bra to bed.
  • If you are small-breasted, an A or B cup, consider wearing camisoles or tops with built-in breast support as part of their design instead of a traditional bra more often.
  • If your bra leaves marks on the body of any kind, it’s too tight. Make adjustments.
  • Purchase bras without an underwire. Snipping the outer edges below each cup will allow you to remove the wires from your existing bras…”

Conclusion

Despite the cancer industry’s assertions that there is no evidence of a link between wearing a bra and breast cancer risk, the evidence to the contrary seems overwhelming.

A troubling aspect to the “bras cause breast cancer is a myth” mantra is that its proponents always cite the Hutchinson study, but never address all the studies showing a bra/breast-cancer link. It’s as if they do not exist. But they do exist. This raises serious credibility issues around cancer organisations.

Whether you decide to wear a bra less frequently (or not at all) as a result of the information presented here is entirely up to you, but I hope you will at least give it some consideration.

Please share your thoughts in the comments box below.

Oh, and a Share on Facebook and X would be awesome!


Further reading:

Breast Cancer main page

Bras And Breast Cancer

Bra-Free Study

The hazards of wearing a bra 5.2 Interesting slideshow


Featured Image: Photo by Gabriel Nunes on Unsplash

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