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Bras and Breast Cancer
by Marcia Jones

I mostly deal with issues concerning PMS and menopause, but some time ago I ran across an interesting article on the National Library of Medicine database. That article, a Harvard study, documented an increase in breast cancer rates between women who wear bras versus those who don't. Fascinated by their findings, I pondered the intuitive wisdom exhibited by women of my generation (I'm 52), who had gleefully "burned their bras" in the late 60's and early 70's.

I began my searches through medical literature for possible explanations. On my journey, I rediscovered Dressed to Kill, the latest edition of which came out in March 2002. Dressed to Kill, a book by Sidney Ross Singer and Soma Grismaijer, should be required reading for all women and their significant others. In clear language, it provides a very logical explanation for something that should be, but is not, common sense.

Here are some of their findings:

* Women who wore their bras 24 hours per day had a 3 out of 4 chance
   of developing breast cancer.

* Women who wore bras more than 12 hour per day, but not to bed, had
   a 1 out of 7 risk.

* Women who wore their bras less than 12 hours per day had a 1 out of
   52 risk.

* Women who wore bras rarely or never had a 1 out of 168 chance of
   getting breast cancer.

The overall difference between 24 hour wearing and not at all was a 125-fold difference. The results of this study are compelling, even considering that it was not a "controlled study" for other risk factors. Bear in mind that known (published in medical journals) risk factors for breast cancer are mostly in the range of less than three-fold differences.

It should also be noted that Singer and Grismaijer surveyed bra-wearing behavior of the past, which is excellent for a disease with such a long development period. In their book, the authors show how most of the known risk factors can be related to bra-wearing behavior and/or the restriction of the lymphatic system. Their explanation of impaired lymphatic flow intrigued me.

For example, breast-feeding and pregnancy cause full development of the mammary lymphatics. Also, women of higher economic status have higher breast cancer rates, and as one might suspect, they are "required" to wear their bras more hours per day. Women who exercise have lower risk, which could relate to better lymphatic circulation (and I would add, more breast movement).

Lymphatic circulation in many tissues (especially the primary lymphatics) is highly dependent on MOVEMENT. When you sit for a long time on an airplane flight, your feet and ankles can swell, because lymphatic circulation goes to near zero. Wearing a bra, especially a constricting one with under-wires, and especially to bed, prevents normal lymphatic flow and would likely lead to anoxia (lower than normal oxygen content), which has been related to fibrosis, which has been linked to increased cancer risk.

Women evolved under conditions where there was BREAST MOVEMENT with every step that they took when they walked or ran. My reading of the scientific literature about lymphatic flow shows me that this may be as important as the constriction factor. Every subtle bounce of the breast while moving, walking, running, etc., gently massages the breast and increases lymphatic flow and, thus, cleans the breast of toxins and wastes that arise from cellular metabolism.

Of course, there may be other mechanisms for the damage that bras apparently cause. One such mechanism could be temperature. Breasts are external organs and have a naturally lower temperature. Cancers can be temperature-dependent. Breast cancer is hormone-dependent. Temperature can alter hormone function. Breast temperature changes throughout the monthly cycle.

All these facts are from the medical literature. By whatever mechanism, someone will eventually explain why Singer and Grismaijer found a 125-fold difference in cancer rates between bra-free breasts and those constricted by 24-hour-per-day bra wearing.

True, some may discount their findings because:

* Medical professionals are "addicted" to using drugs to cure a problem (in   this case cancer), instead of finding ways to prevent the problem.

* Medical professionals are "addicted" to the thought that only they have the    "answers" because they're "qualified."

* Pharmaceutical companies want people to "cure" themselves through   medication and not prevention or alternative treatments, because every   person who gets cancer increases shareholder value.

As an interesting experiment, the next time you walk down the street, notice visually how constricting bras are. On many women you can actually see "dents" around the sides of their chests where their bras are, even in something as opaque as a black t-shirt. A therapist friend of mine, after reading Dressed to Kill, said that she was amazed at what she saw in her practice at a local medical clinic. She noticed how many women have red creases and grooves on their bodies caused by their bras.

Singer and Grismajer suggest that you simply stop wearing one for two weeks and see how you feel. I've heard that they're currently working on a new study. The research is to study whether benign fibrocystic breast disease can be treated by stopping bra wearing for eight weeks. That should be very interesting; this time they are involving medical doctors to further validate their findings.

Back to the bra-burning thing of the 60s. The argument against going braless was a moral argument, not a scientific or an aesthetic argument: "It's just plain wrong to NOT wear a bra." Society still has that bizarre, puritanical, unhealthy attitude toward sex that requires women to bundle up their breasts so they don't jiggle in a provocative way. Unless, of course, you are talking about the media/sex industry which would have women jiggle to please. Women are continuously being bombarded with such mixed messages.

Until recently, people scoffed at the idea that Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) was not good for women! The synthetic hormones were, in mainstream public opinion, perhaps the best things since sliced bread! Even if further research with highly controlled studies on breast health and bra wearing only shows a difference of 5-fold, or even 2-fold, it will be no laughing matter.

Fashionably tight shoes show their harm through pain that makes it difficult to walk. Bras do not provide that clear a signal. Or do they? Many women who do not have breast cancer are seeking treatment for breast fibrocysts and breast pain.

Although this "bundling" is obviously unhealthy, a still unhealthy society will continue to "require" it of their women (just like tight pants, high heels, and earth-and-human-killing hair treatments, cosmetics, and perfume).

Both men and women should read this book with an open mind. And, women should allow themselves to be challenged to face the real reason they wear a bra. So much bra wearing is unneeded- it's just vanity, feeling pressure from a society that thinks it's wrong to "jiggle," or feeling pressure from a society with an unhealthy idealized sense of beauty (the "perfect female figure").

If a man wants a woman to look a certain way that requires her to bundle, tuck, pinch, pluck, or use nasty chemicals, it's time for her to consider finding a healthier partner whose demands (everybody has them!) will allow her to be not just alive, but healthy enough to enjoy bouncing grandchildren on the knee.

My personal opinion is this: Experience tells me that constant binding is an unhealthy practice. Breast tenderness, fibrocysts, and breast cancer-which I hear about from women daily on the PMS and Menopause hotline-are no laughing matter! Many women-mostly well educated, of higher economic status (that's all of us compared to most of the rest of the world!)-are categorically unable to enjoy sex because of these conditions.

If something as simple as wearing a sports bra or camisole instead of the underwire pushup numbers (and not looking as young and shapely) can be an effective symptomatic treatment for conditions that in some women are pre-cancerous, why not? It's not a substitute for basic good-health practices like cutting out alcohol and caffeine, eating a low-fat diet, and supplementing with vitamins E and A. It may, however, be a very useful adjunct.

Another part of good health is the ability to laugh and play and have fun. This practice is deeply ingrained in our society and it certainly would not "hurt" to "play dress up" from time to time! Prevention, not treatment-that's the key. Don't trust the medical industry, don't trust the pharmaceutical industry, and, certainly, don't trust the media on this! Trust your body and trust yourself.

[Don's comment: Dairy consumption is another contributor to breast cancer; see the articles on milk and dairy products in the Articles section. And breast tissue health can be adversely affected by insufficient iodine.]

See also:

Bras and Breast Cancer Connection

Droop Phobia, the Bra, and Breast Cancer

How the Cancer Industry Controls Women

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