Forty years ago, at the height of the feminist movement, women were being encouraged by political activists to take off their bras and burn them in a symbolic declaration of independence and power. Today, women are still being encouraged to discard their bras, but by healthcare professionals, for reasons that have less to do with power than with breast cancer prevention.
The idea that bras are connected with an increase in breast cancer was first raised by Sydney Ross Singer and Soma Grismaijer in their 1995 book, Dressed to Kill: The Link Between Breast Cancer and Bras.
In the book, the authors were following up on a 1991 study conducted at Harvard University which was published in the European Journal of Cancer and Clinical Oncology.
In examining breast size and breast cancer risk, the study discovered that pre-menopausal women who did not wear bras had half the risk of contracting breast cancer when compared withto bra wearers.
In conducting their own research with 5,000 women between 1991 and 1993, Singer and Grismaijer discovered that breast cancer risk dramatically increased in women who wore their bras over 12 hours per day. Their other findings included:
- Women who wore their bras 24 hours per day had a 3 out of 4 chance of developing breast cancer.
- Women who wore their bras for more than 12 hours but not to bed had a 1 in 7 risk for breast cancer.
- Wearing a bra less than 12 hours per day dropped breast cancer risk to 1 in 152.
- Women who never or rarely wore bras had a 1 in 168 risk for breast cancer.
Overall, women who wore their bras 24 hours per day increased their breast cancer risk by 125 times over women who rarely or never wore a bra.
Naturally, numbers like these got lots of people talking. While the lingerie industry was quick to dismiss the findings, science set to work trying to discover the exact mechanics by which bras seemed to be greatly increasing breast cancer risk in women. The original suspicions still hold true today.
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. Michael Schachter, MD, of the Schachter Center for Complementary Medicine, explains it this way:
“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 breast bone. 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.”
Free-flowing drainage throughout the entire lymphatic system is crucial for the body to quickly detoxify itself of waste products and any harmful or carcinogenic substances like PCBs, DDT, dioxin, and benzene from the industrial world we live in.
The rate and degree to which the lymphatic system can drain these toxins away depends largely on the amount of body movement needed to stimulate it. The lymphatic system doesn’t simply work on its own. It gets fired up when the body gets moving through exercise, dancing, or even a brisk walk.
When breasts are constricted in a form-fitting bra, they are not free to move in synchronization with the rest of the body and stimulate the lymph nodes around them to start moving toxins out. This kind of restriction problem is clearly evident in many women who display red creases or grooves along their bra lines. Dents around the sides of the chest near the bra edge are also sometimes visible through the clothes, depending on what a woman is wearing.
Another concern that comes along with breast restriction is an increase in temperature.
Breasts are external organs meant to hang out and somewhat away from the torso, maintaining a naturally lower temperature than the rest of the body. Certain cancers are temperature-sensitive. Temperature changes in the breast can alter hormone function and raise the risk of breast cancer, which is hormone-dependent. It’s been known for quite some time that men who regularly wear tight-fitting pants can disturb testosterone production and even their fertility by altering the temperature of the testicles.
Singer and Grismaijer certainly had their detractors, who were quick to point out that their study did not take into account issues such as a woman’s family cancer history, weight, diet, exercise habits, and other risk factors.
This is because Dressed to Kill was an epidemiological study, which normally looks at a large number of case studies and draws mathematical conclusions from them based on comparisons of large amounts of data. Unlike a traditional double-blind study that isolates one factor to test its effect on something else, epidemiological research takes a more bird’s eye view of a situation by seeking out obvious trends under certain circumstances.
This is why, although epidemiological research can certainly show that one thing (A) is correlated with another (B), it cannot absolutely prove that A causes B because too many other potentially causative factors are in play.
Correlation and causation, of course, are not the same thing. From far away, it would seem that smoke is responsible for the destruction of a building that burns to the ground. On closer inspection, however, it’s clear that the smoke was only correlated with the destruction and the real cause of the damage was fire.
Even with its limitations, a strong correlation can be an invaluable clue when determining actual causation between two factors. In fact, further research under a controlled setting often goes on to prove that one factor, which is correlated with a certain outcome, is indeed the causative force—or at least one among several others.
While the Dressed to Kill study doesn’t present an open-and-shut case on bras and breast cancer risk, the correlation it draws between the two is so strong that it can’t be ignored, especially when the cancer risk is 4 to 12 times greater than the risk of getting lung cancer from smoking.
In recent years, additional research has given even more credence to the original study, and those who laughed at the data are now giving it a serious second look. A Chinese study from 2009 found that not sleeping in a bra dropped a woman’s risk of breast cancer by 60 percent.
In 2011, a study by the Department of Public Health in Venezuela found that bras played a primary role in fibrocystic breast disease and cancer, and that any bras that left indentations or red marks on the body were a risk, especially underwire and push-up bras. A study of 2,500 women in Scotland in 2014 also showed that bra fit and length of wear were connected to increases in breast cancer rates.
In light of this more recent research, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) released data from its own study in September 2014, which was conducted by The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. Originally published in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, the results contradicted virtually other every study done on the bra/breast cancer connection in the 23 years that preceded it. In examining 1,500 women with and without a history of breast cancer, the researchers found that there was zero connection between breast cancer and bra wear, regardless of a woman’s age, how long and at what time of day a bra is worn, at what age bra usage begins, bra style, or even breast/cup size.
When interviewed by USA Today as part of a “myth-busting” story, one of the researchers, Lu Chen, said of the breast cancer/bra connection, “…there’s just nothing there.”
That was it. The researchers simply said that bra usage doesn’t influence breast cancer whatsoever, and completely ignored virtually every other study on the subject as if they’d never existed. The only previous research the Hutchinson study did acknowledge was the Harvard study from 1991 that found breast cancer rates were 100% higher in younger women who wore bras when compared with those who did not. The Hutchinson researchers referred to the Harvard study as “flawed,” without providing a detailed explanation as to why or how they came to that conclusion.
At the same time, other researchers and breast health advocates were finding their own flaws and conflicts of interest in the Hutchinson study.
Of primary concern was the fact that the Hutchinson study only looked at women 55 and older, all of whom wore bras. There was no control group of women who did not wear bras with which the data was compared. Without a proper comparison with a control group, it’s nearly impossible to make any assumptions about the collected data.
Is it possible the researchers were concerned that the lower breast cancer rates of women who went bra-free would disprove the desired outcome of their own study? It’s a valid question. How else do you explain a so-called scientific study with no baseline with which to compare its data? Ironically, the study actually does validate all the previous bra/cancer connection studies because every woman in the Hutchinson study cancer group was a lifetime bra wearer.
Barely one week after the release of the NCI Hutchinson study results, Sydney Ross Singer, one of the authors of Dressed to Kill, was quick to point out the above research flaws, as well as a related conflict of interest that wasn’t widely known.
According to Singer, The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center receives money annually from a fundraising event called the Bra Dash, a 5k run during which women wear pink bras on the outside of their clothes to raise money for research. Perhaps the researchers felt it was inappropriate to implicate bras in breast cancer when bras are used to raise money for the institution.
In spite of the NCI Hutchinson stand on bras and breast cancer, Singer’s work and all the earlier studies continue to be validated. As early as February 2015, research published in the African Journal of Cancer found that, among other risk factors, “intensity of brassiere use…had association with breast cancer occurrence.”
In recent years, yet another cancer-related concern has been raised about bras, particularly those with an underwire and their ability to magnify and sustain electromagnetic frequencies (EMF) and radiation from things like cell phones and Wi-Fi. While the fact that your bra could absorb and intensify radiation seems preposterous, it’s not as far-fetched as it sounds.
Science has known for some time that metal objects can be used to sustain and magnify EMF radiation. Dr. George Goodheart, also known as the “Father of Applied Kinesiology,” discovered that taping a small metal ball over an acupuncture point generated a much longer electrical stimulation to that area of the body. He called this the “Antenna Effect.”
That discovery led to the development of AcuAids, small magnetic patches that doctors and chiropractors all over the world use every day.
Just like the metal ball, any metal on the human body has the ability to capture, sustain, and magnify EMF radiation depending on the environment you’re in and the electronic devices you’re using.
The concern with an underwire in a bra is that it comes into contact with two neuro-lymphatic reflex points on the body. The point below the right breast is connected to the liver and gall bladder, while the one below the left breast is linked to the stomach. Over-stimulation of these points not only risks cancerous mutation of breast tissue, but additional problems in the liver, gall bladder, and stomach may result, as well. Doctor and chiropractor John D. Andre explains it this way:
“These reflexes, like all acupuncture points, follow the Law of Stimulation. In the beginning of stimulating a point, it is stimulated — often causing an increase in associated function. Later on, this continued stimulation causes sedation of that point and a subsequent decrease in its associated function. It’s a mechanical thing…If a woman keeps the metal underwire on top of those reflex points, over time that will mess up the functioning of the associated circuits: Liver, gallbladder, and stomach.”
I’m a firm believer that if we are to make choices that serve us, the choices we make should never be fear-based. With that in mind, there is no need to panic about any of what has been shared here. 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. Be sure to close the incisions up with a few stitches of thread. Bras with plastic under supports are available, too.
- Never carry your cell phone in a breast pocket, pants pocket, or in your bra. Always use an earpiece or speaker phone, keeping the phone away from your body.
- Consider a traditional internet connection for your home instead of Wi-Fi. The whole family will be healthier for it.
If there really is one myth surrounding bra usage that needs to be busted, it’s that bras keep the breasts toned and prevent the sagging that’s wrongfully blamed on gravity.
If you’re concerned that going without a bra more often will cause your breasts to sag, let me reassure you that’s not going to happen. Better yet, check out these great quotes from experts, compliments of Breastnotes.com:
“A mistaken popular belief maintains that wearing a bra strengthens your breasts and prevents their eventual sagging, but you sag because of the proportion of fat and tissue in your breasts, and no bra changes that.” –Susan M. Love M.D., Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book
“Bras will keep your breasts from sagging while you’re wearing them, but not for the remainder of the time. There is no medical literature that shows bras prevent sagging. We have no evidence that wearing a bra could prevent sagging because the breast itself is not muscle, so keeping it toned up is an impossibility.” — John Dixey, Bras, The Bare Facts documentary
“…going braless can actually cause the breasts to sag less. Bras cause breasts to sag because chest muscles work less when breasts are supported and confined in a bra. Over time, these muscles and ligaments can atrophy because of a lack of use…When the chest muscles and ligaments have to bear the weight of the breasts, muscle tone returns.” –Dr. Claire Heigh
“Whether you have always worn a bra or always gone braless, age and breastfeeding will naturally cause your breasts to sag.” –Niels H. Laurensen, M.D., PhD, and Eileen Stukane, The Complete Book of Breast Care
“Contrary to popular belief, going braless doesn’t mean that your breasts are destined to droop…Bras do not preserve the shape or perkiness of breasts.” –Columbia University, Columbia Health, Go Ask Alice! column
So why not try going braless a little more often? The power and independence you feel this time around won’t be from rejecting political oppression but from taking charge of your health and resisting the social norms that seek to compromise it.
Dr. Sadeghi is the founder of Be Hive of Healing, an integrative medical center, publisher of MegaZEN Wellbeing Journal, and the author of The Clarity Cleanse.