This is an excerpt from my book, How to Find a Bra That Fits, which can be purchased here.
I’d like to address a question that pops up occasionally: Does wearing a bra put you at increased risk for breast cancer?
Short answer: No.
Long answer: Nooooooooo.
What, you wanted a serious answer? Okay, okay.
Let’s take a look at two people named Sydney Ross Singer and Soma Grismaijer. Singer has a BS in biology and a MS in cultural anthropology. Grismaijer has a BS in environmental studies and planning. The two are a husband-and-wife duo, and are self-proclaimed pioneers of applied medical anthropology.
In the 80s and 90s, the pair stayed very busy doing research on breast cancer, and in 1995 they published a book called Dressed to Kill. In this book, they purported that the reason bras increase the risk of breast cancer is due to the effect that bras have on the lymphatic system, particularly the circulation in lymph nodes. The constriction of a tight bra impedes the proper function of the lymphatic system, leading to a buildup of fluid within the breast tissue.
They claim that the lack of drainage is undesirable because this fluid is toxic: the substances that we take into our bodies via air, water, and food have all been polluted by petroleum and fossil fuels and are therefore carcinogenic. Consequently, when these toxins cannot flow normally through the lymph nodes, these toxins get concentrated in the breast tissue, leading to a increased risk of breast cancer.
They claimed that 70% of breast cancer cases were not explainable by the current (as of 1995) known breast cancer risks. They stated that breast cancer was a rare event in cultures that were bra-free.
Lastly, they blamed the greediness of the fashion and medical industries. The bra industry is a multi-billion dollar enterprise, and more billions of dollars are spent researching and treating the disease. Ironically, they note, ending breast cancer can cause financial hardship for many people.
Naturally, this book created quite a bit of discussion on the topic. Many medical and scientific bodies have studied and reviewed the authors’ claims over that decade or so. In general, all of the authors’ claims have been dismissed on the basis of poor methodology, lack of supporting evidence, and their failure to consider alternate explanations besides bra use for their findings. In addition, the authors’ theory about toxic fluid buildup in the lymphatic system was debunked by the National Institutes of Health. The NIH examined cancer rates among women who had their underarm lymph nodes removed as part of melanoma treatment:
“The surgery, which is known to block lymph drainage from breast tissue, did not detectably increase breast cancer rates, the study found, meaning that it is extremely unlikely that wearing a bra, which affects lymph flow minimally if at all, would do so.”
The NIH, the American Cancer Society, and Breastcancer.org all deny the link between bras and breast cancer.
So do bras cause breast cancer? No. Is there a link between not wearing a bra and lower rates of breast cancer? Perhaps. The authors of an NIH-funded study posit that, because of the known link between weight/obesity and breast cancer, women who have larger breasts are more likely to wear a bra than women with smaller breasts, and that bra cup size is often a reflection of weight.
Dressed to Kill is the sole reason some people think that there’s a link between breast cancer and wearing bras.