Bras and Breast Cancer

Circa 1975 Wonderbra

I recently came across an ‘interesting’ article by a Sydney Ross Singer who claims that there is a link between bras and breast cancer. The name sounded familiar, and a quick Google search confirmed that he is indeed the infamous quackademic co-author for the book Dressed to Kill, published in 1995.

These claims are ridiculous, but rather than just dismissing them, I want to explain why they are ridiculous. First, let’s go over exactly what Singer’s claims are. He claims that bras are the ‘leading cause of breast cancer’, because they ‘constrict and interfere with circulation’ and therefore since lymph fluid cannot ‘easily drain from a bra-constricted breast’, the stagnant lymph fluid ‘concentrates waste products’, building up ‘toxins’ that ultimately cause cancer. Just for added kicks, he then claims that the reason scientists aren’t more outraged is because we’re all in on the conspiracy, because cancer is big bucks, and we’re all about raking in the $$ with mammograms and chemo and breast implants.

So how strong is the ‘science’ behind these claims? Fortunately, not very. As anyone following my Hallmarks of Cancer series knows, cancer is incredibly complex. There is no ‘single cause’ for cancer. Only 10% of breast cancers can be attributed to a clearly defined inherited genetic cause; mutations in the famous BRCA1 & BRCA2 genes. Does this mean that 90% of breast cancers can be attributed to the environment? No. Many cancers, including breast cancers, arise due to spontaneous mutations in important genes; genes that control cell death, cell division, DNA repair (detailed explanations here). Do these mutations arise because of bras and stagnant lymph? No. No. No.

Are there risks for breast cancer that have been proven by cancer epidemiological studies? Yes. Let me list the two main ones below:

Obesity is a risk factor for breast cancer in post-menopausal women. Obesity causes changes in adipose tissue (fat) that leads to a chronic state of cellular inflammation and the activation of cancer causing genes, and the inactivation of cancer preventing genes.

Hormones: breast cancer risk is related to estrogen exposure. The number of full term pregnancies decreases the risk for breast cancer. A late onset menstrual cycle decreases the risk for breast cancer. Breastfeeding decreases the risk for breast cancer. This is because all these events reduce the number of menstrual cycles (i.e. the deluge of hormones), and thus the cumulative exposure to these hormones, over the lifetime of the woman. This is also why Hormone Replacement Therapy is linked to an increase in breast cancer risk.

Bras do not cause breast cancer. Inherited genetic defects, obesity, hormone exposure and sometimes, simply just shitty luck because of a spontaneous mutation can cause breast cancer. It’s more about fatty foods and hormone replacement therapy than bras and ‘toxins’.

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