Underwire bras (or bras of any kind) DO NOT cause cancer. I suspect that this is going to turn into a long post, so if you read no further, take this message to heart.
The bras-cancer “connection” claim has been kicking around for years and still pops up from time to time among purveyors of bra alternatives. It tends to go hand-in-hand with things like detox diets, cleanses, and other products intended to rid the body of purported toxins. The appeal may stem from the desire to place the blame for breast cancer on a controllable factor rather than accepting the reality that cancer is often devastatingly indiscriminate.
Though pre-existing, this myth gained widespread traction with the 1995 publication of Dressed to Kill: The Link Between Breast Cancer and Bras by husband-and-wife medical anthropologists Sydney Ross Singer and Soma Grismaijer. The book laid out their hypothesis, that subtle constriction from the wearing of bras- especially underwired bras- would block lymphatic drainage, thereby trapping toxins in breast tissue. Breast cancer would develop as a result of these accumulated toxins. In support of their assertions was the inclusion of a study conducted by the couple that produced a number of frightening “findings,” such as that 3 out of 4 women who wore bras 24 hours a day would develop breast cancer in their lifetimes.
This research was never published in a peer-reviewed journal, only in Dressed to Kill, and it has been soundly and routinely debunked ever since. As described in a post on the Science Based Medicine website, problems with the study included the following:
• No proper statistical treatment of data, and no attempt to control for well-established epidemiological risk factors for breast cancer, such as age at menarche, age at menopause, age of first live birth, obesity, Western pattern diet, etc.
• Lack of proof that the pressure exerted by a bra reduces the flow of lymph.
• Lack of proof that lymph contains carcinogens and/or that there are carcinogens in the human body that can induce breast cancer.
• Participants were told the hypothesis and aims of the study beforehand.
On the second and third points, this understanding of lymphatic function just doesn’t hold up. Without getting too far into the weeds, lymph fluid flows through a network of vessels that connect to our lymph nodes. White blood cells concentrated in the lymph nodes attack and break down pathogens and damaged cells. The waste products from this process are carried by the lymph fluid back into the bloodstream, where they are removed by the liver or kidneys and excreted as, er, excrement.
While cancer may arise in lymph nodes, or spread there from other parts of the body, there is no known mechanism by which white blood cell action and cleanup becomes a “toxin” or causative agent. There is also NO evidence that bras restrict lymph drainage. Anatomically, bodily fluid travels up and out of the armpits, not downwards, and moderate compression is used to *aid* circulation and lymph flow, such as with compression stockings and compression sleeves for lymphedema.
Rigorous, well-controlled studies have found that while risk factors for breast cancer exist- genetics, obesity, age, childbearing history- bra use is a completely negligible factor. Researchers “looked for differences between cases and controls in various aspects of bra wearing, including bra cup size, recency, average number of hours/day worn, wearing a bra with an underwire, or age first began regularly wearing a bra. They found no correlations.”
With this being Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I do want to remind you all that there are other ways to take charge of your breast health that really matter. Conduct your monthly breast self-exams, and make time for your annual screenings. I want to give another shout-out to the Athens Nurses Clinic, whose breast health initiative includes providing mammograms to eligible low-income patients.
Cancer is a scary subject, but you can lay this particular fear to rest.