Can a Bra Cause Breast Cancer? The Answer May Surprise You
By Mindy Tyson McHorse, Contributing Editor
Why do women wear bras in the first place? Lots of reasons. Beauty, culture, and youth all play a role. Bras shape breasts into a form appreciated and celebrated in modern culture. They also give elevated support and help sagging, older breasts come closer to the shape of their youth. Bras even enhance perceived breast size, which helps women conform to beauty standards.
When you think about it, reshaping our bodies according to cultural preferences — and at the expense of good health — has gone on for centuries. Perhaps the worst example is foot binding in China (now banned, thank goodness), where girls’ feet were tied with cloth strips so they’d never grow past four inches in length. They were crippled for life.
Then, consider corsets, worn up until the early twentieth century. They gave countless women lower back distortion.
The headline news here is that wearing a bra may be the worst thing since foot binding when it comes to damaging women’s health. I’m going to show you evidence that it may increase your risk of breast cancer from 19 to 125 times! The outcomes vary so much because the level of risk depends on how many hours a day you wear one.
Let me explain what bras do to our bodies and why they may be so damaging…
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Bras actually change the anatomy of the breast
Most women don’t realize that bras redistribute the weight of their breasts between the shoulder straps, underwire, and the band between the breasts. Plus, the cup of the bra puts slight pressure on the breast itself to achieve lift and shape.
The weight on the shoulder straps has already been shown to have consequences. Multiple studies have linked neck, shoulder, and arm pain to the compression caused by bra straps that support heavy breasts.
But, the pressure from other parts of the bra, along with the shoulder straps, doesn’t just lift and shape. Turns out, it also constricts lymph drainage from the lymph nodes around the breasts. This is a really bad thing, given that your lymph drainage system is a primary way for your body to flush out toxins.
Your overworked toxic-waste disposal system
In a nutshell, the lymphatic system is a major part of your immune system and helps your body get rid of toxins. It includes the movement of blood to your lungs, kidneys, and liver for filtering, cleansing, and rejuvenation. This is how nutrients and oxygen get added to your blood while toxins get removed.
As blood moves through your capillaries — your smallest blood vessels — something called interstitial fluid seeps from the capillary walls into the lymphatic system. Though some fluid goes back into your capillaries, a large amount of it has to find another way back into the bloodstream.
This portion of the fluid is your lymph. It contains fats, proteins, white blood cells, toxins and other debris. The lymphatic system takes this fluid and pumps it back into your bloodstream.
It’s important that your lymphatic system pump freely, otherwise you get a backup of lymph. You may have seen the effects of this before. It’s what happens when you take off your shoes and socks to find your feet swollen. When your lymphatics get constricted, they can’t effectively move fluid out of your feet.
Aside from uncomfortable swelling, a lymph backup is bad news because it means the toxins it carries are not being pushed out. Instead, those toxins stay stagnant in your body.
If any tissue in your body is regularly exposed to toxins, it gradually degenerates. Degeneration leads to cell division, which can produce a mass of cells that becomes a tumor. Sometimes it’s benign, sometimes it’s cancer.
How your bra affects your lymphatic system
Now, if enough pressure is put on your lymphatic system to produce pain and swelling, as in the example of your feet, you’d notice and fix it. Meaning, you’d take off your shoes, put your feet up, and bring the swelling down.
But, what if the pressure were too slight for you to notice? Or, what if it had gone on for so long, you no longer realized your discomfort? This is the case when it comes to bras. Many women simply “get used to” the discomfort of a bra and pay no attention to the indentations bras leave on their skin. Some researchers believe it’s precisely this indentation that, over a period of time, causes long-term mild impairment of the lymphatic function.
One of the largest clusters of lymph nodes is located in the armpit and upper chest area. That lymph cluster filters drainage from the breast, arm, and upper chest. But, if your bra is too tight, it constricts drainage from the lymph nodes in your armpit area.
Drainage to the breastbone lymph nodes also gets constricted, especially by bras with underwire. On top of that, shoulder straps from bras potentially cut off drainage of the lymphatics along the top of the breast to the armpit. Also, pressure from the cups of the bra may hinder drainage down to the liver.
If the researchers are right and this is what’s happening, what does it mean? Simply this: Toxins are not being drained from the breast area, so breast tissues are more susceptible to degeneration and eventual cancer.
Interesting findings on bra-wearing
A few years ago, medical researchers Ross Singer and Soma Grismaijer compared the bra-wearing habits of two groups of women. The first group was made up of women who either had breast cancer or were survivors of breast cancer. The second group was the control, made up of women who had never been diagnosed with breast cancer. The researchers then measured bra-wearing behavior for the two groups based on length of time worn per day.
This is what the researchers found:
i) Only .24% of women in the cancer group did not wear bras at all versus 5% in the non-cancer group
ii) Just 1% of women in the cancer group wore bras less than 12 hours a day versus 19% of the non-cancer group
iii) 81% of women in the cancer group wore bras more than 12 hours a day but not to bed versus 73% of the non-cancer group
iv) 18% of women in the cancer group wore bras 24 hours a day versus 3% in the non-cancer group
To sum up, the women who got cancer were more likely to wear a bra and to wear it for more hours each day. A significant number of women who didn’t get cancer didn’t wear bras at all and — across the board — the fewer hours each day a bra is worn, the less likely the woman is to get cancer.
As Singer and Grismaijer point out, when you compare the two extremes of bra-wearing behavior — no bra at all vs. wearing a bra 24 hours a day — you see a 125-fold greater chance of developing breast cancer when you wear a bra all the time.
Certainly, wearing a bra 24-hours a day looks like high-risk behavior.
But the 12-hours-a-day mark also looks significant. Only one percent of the women who wore a bra less than 12 hours a day got breast cancer. 19 times as many women got cancer if they wore a bra more than 12 hours. That’s a huge increase.
On the other hand…
It’s important to note the Singer and Grismaijer findings were published in a popular book, not a medical journal, and have come in for criticism by some in the medical community. Although the authors interviewed more than 4,000 women, there are questions about whether the study controlled for other risk factors such as age, family history, and medical history.
Adriane Fugh-Berman, MD, an associate professor at Georgetown University School of Medicine, said, “The study was of such poor quality that it would have been disqualified from being published in a reputable medical journal.”
Perhaps the griping of a mainstream doctor is less important than what the study itself shows: the risk — if any — mainly falls on women who wear a bra nearly all the time. Hopefully, there aren’t many women who wear their bras 24-hours a day. On the other hand…
Your body already knows how to prevent cancer
So no, bras do not cause breast cancer. But, they may play a role in activating the cause of the disease. Basically, breast cancer is triggered by the combined effects of bras and subsequent toxin exposure to breasts for one simple reason: tight bras concentrate toxins within breast tissue by limiting drainage of the lymphatics.
Until a true cause for breast cancer can be discovered, prevention is key. Regular mammograms and self-exams to detect tumors are not the same as prevention — that’s just early detection. Prevention, on the other hand, is a lifestyle choice that supports the body’s own healing ability.
You should avoid toxins, obviously, but then also take care not to handicap your toxic-disposal system — i.e., your lymphatic system. Because, if you think about it, your body already knows how to prevent cancer. That means your best move is to help it do what it does naturally. Blocking lymphatic flow with restrictive clothing keeps your body from optimal performance. Bras that do this run the risk of hampering your immune system from doing its job and ridding your body of toxins.
I’m not trying to spark another bra-burning revolution, but there are some changes you can make without completely foregoing modern dress standards. For one, take off your bra at night. At the very least, this allows the cleansing and repair process to begin. You’re asking a lot of your immune system if you tie it off for eighteen hours a day.
When you do wear a bra, make sure it fits correctly. If it leaves red marks on your skin when you take it off, it’s too tight. And when you’re home and out of the public eye, I recommend you take it off.
My thanks to Cancer Defeated editor in chief Lee Euler for giving me the spotlight to sound off about this important subject. Lee has just come out with a new report called Breast Cancer Cover-Up that covers all your best options for detecting and treating breast cancer. Lee wrote it with the help of our colleague Susan Clark. Click here to learn more.