A few months ago, I saw a question on Quora that asked whether bras caused breast cancer. The question didn’t make a lot of sense to me, as I didn’t understand why someone would associate a bra with cancer. To the best of my knowledge, bras are not made of any exotic material, or laundered in some special way, so why would they cause cancer? Perhaps if they were made of asbestos they would…

But questions like this aren’t asked without a real element of concern from the questioner. And I live with my wife and two teenage daughters, so if there is a relationship between bras and cancer, it’s something that I’d want to understand. If only I could figure out why the question was asked…

Then, the other day, I had an, “Ooooooh, I get it now,” moment.

I saw one of those reports that claims that 80% of women are wearing an ill fitting bra, and the penny dropped. It isn’t the bra itself that is in question, it’s the action of the bra on the body.

To some extent, this would explain the prevalence of memes like this:

I’m a man; I accept that I understand how good this might be.
From Pinterest.

Although, if this is generally accepted as being such a good feeling, it would indicate that a lot of women are wearing uncomfortable bras. And if bras are uncomfortable, then they might well be causing sustained pressure on breast tissue. And sustained pressure can potentially lead to tissue damage. In certain circumstances, prolonged tissue damage can lead to cancer.

Which meant that I finally understood the need for the question as to whether bras can cause breast cancer.

As with most things, there is some debate about the answer. There are two camps of people; one camp argues that, yes, bras cause breast cancer. The other camp disagrees.

In the ‘Yes’ camp, you have:

  • Sydney Ross Singer and Soma Grismaijer, the authors of the 1995 book, ‘Dressed to Kill: The Link Between Breast Cancer and Bras’
  • Websites, that primarily refer back to ‘Dressed to Kill’ and its citations, like:

It’s worth noting that the second edition of ‘Dressed to Kill’ was released in 2018.

And, you know; why not?!
Well, they’re expensive, for one thing…

While, in the ‘No’ camp, you have:

  • Doctors
  • Oncologists
  • Scientists
  • Cancer charities
  • Governments
  • Heath services, like the NHS

The arguments come down to whether or not bras cause damage to the lymphatic system of the breast tissue. And, if so, whether this damage might lead to cancer. The primary areas of bra-related concern are:

  1. Underwired bras
  2. Sleeping in bras
  3. Sleeping in underwired bras

Part of the rationale that bras are damaging, is the simple fact that there is no good justification for wearing bras (outside of rare medical necessitates). And, before anyone gets too angry with me for saying this, let me cite the Wikipedia page:

There is no evidence that bras actually prevent breasts from sagging.

Please, do not shoot the messenger.

Now, I am perfectly willing to accept that this seems counter intuitive. It does to me.

The theory goes that wearing bras prevents excess stretching, over time, of the supportive tissues of the breast. Therefore, less sagging.

A counter-argument, though, might be that wearing bras prevents said supportive tissues from getting the ‘exercise’ they need to maintain their structural properties. Thus causing supportive breast tissue to become weaker over time, from lack of use. Presumably at the same rate that this supportive tissue would stretch, if no bra was being worn. Thereby cancelling each other out and meaning that wearing bras does not prevent breasts from sagging…

Whatever the reason, science says that bras don’t prevent sagging. A lot of women find this hard to believe.

Science also says that bras don’t cause breast cancer. If a lot of women already have their doubts about scientists, when it comes to bras, then maybe bras can cause breast cancer!?

Anyway, the upshot of all this is that those who argue that bras cause breast cancer, can utilise a ‘why risk it’ approach. If there is no good reason to wear bras, and bras might cause cancer, the obvious solution is to not wear bras.

Of course, despite the interesting logic of this approach, bras have been around since at least ancient the Greeks. These ‘bras’ were bands of material that were wrapped around the chest to hold the breasts in place, but the principle is the same. Breast bands were particularly associated with women who were playing sport because of course they were. Sports bras are clearly a very useful, and oft times necessary, piece of kit.

Sicilian mosaics from the 4th Century AD.

On another note, it seems that there is more to bras than just their functional element. I feel like I’m walking on egg shells here, so I’m just going to quote Wikipedia again…

Women’s choices about what kind of bra to wear are consciously and unconsciously affected by social perceptions of the ideal female body shape, which changes over time. Bras have become a fashion item and cultural statement.

In the past couple of decades, bra fashions have undergone some major changes. For previous generations, bras were an item of underwear that should not be seen, or even alluded to. That changed during the 1990s, when displaying bra straps became the norm. Since then, bras, in particular sports bras, have become acceptable as outerwear. This has always seemed logical to me, as I never could understand the difference in acceptability of displaying bikini tops, compared with bras. Surely they’re the same thing?!

In most recent times, there has been a trend, especially amongst Western millennials, to go braless. While there has always been a political, feminist undertone around not wearing bras, as evidenced by the #freethenipple campaign, it is now simply considered fashionable as well.

Which brings us back to an environment where a second edition of a 1995 book becomes a viable economic proposition in 2018.

Now, without wishing to get bogged down in the technicalities of the claims that bras cause breast cancer, I’ll briefly consider the lymphatic system in relationship to the cancer claims. The claims are that bras prevent the lymphatic system from working properly, due to the underwire and/or the tightness of the bra. Most notably if sleeping in a bra.

The fact is that the lymphatic system of the breasts drain away from the bra, towards the armpit. This is even referred to in one of the supporting documents cited by the Bras and Breast Cancer site, which is being used as evidence of their claims that bras cause breast cancer. However, the authors of the document, which is a meta-analysis, make note of the limitations of the studies that it is analysing. The document notes the contradictory nature of the various studies, observing that while some studies see a correlation between breast cancer and bra wearing, others do not.

Needless to say, those advocating the link between bras and breast cancer only draw on the studies that support their claims.

Which brings me on to the observations of those in the ‘No’ camp.

BreastCancer.org, states the following:

There is no evidence to back the claims that… underwire bras, and wearing a bra at night are causes of breast cancer.” It goes on to say, “There is no scientific evidence to support either of these rumors.

The United Kingdom National Health Service (NHS), has this:

There is an ‘urban myth’ that wearing a bra disrupts the workings of the lymphatic system (an essential part of the immune system), which could lead to a build-up of toxins inside breast tissue, increasing the risk of cancer. New research suggests that this fear may be unfounded.

“The researchers concluded that their findings ‘provided reassurance to women that wearing a bra does not seem to increase the risk of the most common histologic types of postmenopausal breast cancer’.”

The American Cancer Society has a page for Disproven or Controversial Breast Cancer Risk Factors, which includes this:

Internet and e-mail rumors and at least one book have suggested that bras cause breast cancer by obstructing lymph flow. There is no good scientific or clinical basis for this claim, and a 2014 study of more than 1,500 women found no association between wearing a bra and breast cancer risk.

So, on the one hand you have a consensus among the scientific community that bras do not cause breast cancer. While, on the other hand, you have someone trying to sell a 25 year old book. It speaks volumes of today’s society that something that was disproved an entire generation ago is able to gain traction.

An issue with living on the internet is being able to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Quite why people are so willing to give credence to things that are demonstrably not true, I don’t understand…

One thing that I really don’t think is helpful, is that so many women find their bras uncomfortable. If something causes a person discomfort for so much of their lives, they’re bound to think the worst of it.

At the risk of being accused of mansplaining; would it not make more sense if everyone just got fitted for the correct bra size? Perhaps, at different times of the month. And also on a regular basis…?!

Because, no; bras can’t cause breast cancer.

But if it feels like they do, then you really need to do something about it…

(Please don’t kill me.)