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Bras cause breast cancer? Separating fact from fiction

CTCA

blog bra myth

We know that family history, obesity and heavy drinking can increase your risk of breast cancer, but what about the bra you’re wearing? Can it cause cancer?

The theory that bras can lead to cancer might make you want to burn your bra. There’s no need, though, because the theory lacks scientific backing.

Sydney Ross Singer, the author of the 1995 book Dressed to Kill: The Link Between Breast Cancer and Bras, brought attention to the issue in a newspaper column that called out the American Cancer Society (ACS) and the Susan G. Komen Foundation for dismissing his viewpoint.

We agree with the ACS and Komen, and we want women to understand breast cancer risk factors so they can make informed choices.

Dr. Dennis Citrin, a medical oncologist at our hospital outside Chicago, says, “There is absolutely no evidence that wearing a bra would increase a woman’s chance of developing breast cancer and no scientific rationale to explain why wearing a bra could cause pre-cancerous damage to breast tissue.” With more than three decades of experience, Dr. Citrin specializes in treating advanced breast cancer.

The bra theory dates to 1991 when a study published in the European Journal of Cancer and Clinical Oncology explored the association between breast cancer and cup size. It found that postmenopausal women with larger cup size had an increased risk of breast cancer. Obesity—a known risk factor – was partially behind the higher risk, the researchers wrote. Here’s what we know about obesity and breast cancer:

  • After menopause, increased fat tissue may raise estrogen levels. Higher levels of estrogen may increase the risk of breast cancer.
  • Weight gain during adulthood and excess body fat around the waist also may increase risk.

Experts have noted that the issue isn’t wearing a bra or its cup size, but having more breast tissue that is linked to increased breast cancer risk. We know that women with less fatty tissue and more glandular and fibrous tissue may be at higher risk for developing breast cancer than women with less dense breasts.

Just the bra alone is too simple of an explanation for why something as complex as cancer could develop. Singer and wife Soma Grismaijer, both medical anthropologists, took the 1991 study and ran with it. In their book, they argued that bras explained why breast cancer rates were lower among indigenous groups that had not adopted a Western lifestyle, which is associated with obesity and chronic conditions such as diabetes. The book was not peer-reviewed, as are studies published in medical journals.

Singer and Grismaijer surveyed American women for their book, but they didn’t control for breast cancer risk factors. The couple suggested that wearing a bra prevents the lymphatic system from releasing toxins. Wearing a bra, though, has little effect on lymph flow. Women who’ve had their underarm lymph nodes removed surgically for melanoma treatment have not had a greater risk of breast cancer, according to a 2009 study in The Breast Journal.

Anytime you see confusing health claims on the Internet or in e-mail forwards, it’s always a good idea to check what you’re reading against other sources or talk to your doctor for clarification.

Learn more about breast cancer risk factors.

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