Last month I received a call from a freelance writer pitching a story about the purported link between bras and breast cancer. The implications were alarming, he said; why wasn’t more being written about it?
And he was right. If the much-whispered-about connection between wearing a bra and developing breast cancer was true, it would trigger a global health care shakeup not seen since the link between smoking and cancer was definitively proven 50 years ago. And, incidentally, devastate the $30-billion annual international undergarments industry.
But we turned down the story, not because we’re getting kickbacks from Big Medicine or Big Undies but because it’s a dangerous theory that’s never had much credibility. All it really does is scare the hell out of people.
The bras-cause-cancer story is the Roswell of the fashion world, a provocative and stubbornly durable urban myth that has survived years of official denial, perpetuated by paranoid pseudo-science that is gobbled up by the gullible.
What’s been lacking, though, has been any legitimate scientific investigation that either confirms or debunks the theory. Until now.
More than 20 years after the bra/cancer story began circulating, a trio of Seattle researchers have conducted the first conclusive evaluation of the relationship between bra-wearing habits and the risk of developing breast cancer. Here’s what they found, as reported last week in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention:
“No aspect of bra wearing, including bra cup size, recency, average number of hours/day worn, wearing a bra with an underwire, or age first began regularly wearing a bra, was associated with risks of either invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC) or invasive lobular carcinoma (ILC).”
The researchers studied 1,034 post-menopausal women in the Seattle-Puget Sound area who were diagnosed with breast cancer between 2000-2004, and compared them with a control group of 469 women aged 55-74 who did not have breast cancer.
They conducted in-person interviews with study participants to learn their personal bra-wearing history and habits, and found 75% of women wore a bra at least 8 hours a day, in both the survivor group and the control group. To be clear, the study doesn’t PROVE that bras don’t cause cancer, only that there’s no observable difference in bra-wearing habits between women who get breast cancer and those who don’t.
The study had some built-in limitations, too: only women over 55 were included; the team didn’t look at the impact of bra tightness on cancer rates; and no bra-less women were studied because, the researchers said, only one woman in the entire study group did not wear a bra. All of which means there is room for more research on the subject.
But this is an important study nonetheless because it lays to rest many of the misguided assertions and half-truths that have been part of this debate since the 1995 publication of Dressed To Kill: The Link Between Breast Cancer and Bras and its 2001 sequel Get It Off! Understanding the Cause of Breast Pain, Cysts and Cancer.
Both self-published works are from the husband-wife team of Sydney Ross Singer and Soma Grismaijer, a pair of “medical anthropologists” from Hawaii who argue that bras constrict lymphatic flow, which can lead to the buildup of toxins, which can lead to the creation of cysts and the eventual onset of breast cancer.
The pair based their theories on the study of aboriginal cultures where women don’t wear bras and where the incidence of breast cancer is low compared to westernized societies where bra-wearing is the norm. Singer and Grismaijer equate bra-wearing with the crippling ancient Chinese practice of foot-binding, and have called bras “the leading cause of breast cancer.”
And yesterday, in a lengthy blog post, the pair also dismissed the Seattle study, calling it “useless”, “sloppy” and a “public relations hatchet-job.”
“Actually, this study supports the bra-cancer link, since all the women in the cancer group were lifetime bra wearers,” they wrote. “All this study really shows is that some women who have worn bras for 40 years or longer will get breast cancer and some will not.”
American health authorities and breast cancer support groups have been fighting a kind of rearguard campaign against Dressed To Kill for years, saying its findings are unsupported by any substantial peer-reviewed studies that follow accepted scientific protocols. More importantly, health agencies argue, the D2K authors failed to take into account other risk factors — obesity, smoking and lack of exercise, for example — that might explain the variance in cancer rates between developed societies and indigenous populations.
At the same time, though, the broader research community has been slow to investigate the explosive allegations in D2K, mostly because doctors considered them frivolous and unworthy of serious scientific study and precious research dollars.
The new Seattle study doesn’t answer all the questions on the subject, but it fills an important gap in research and gives health experts some real data to support their dismissal of the bra-cancer link.
Why is that so important? Because a lot of women believed what D2K said, or at least worried it might be true. Like the long-disproven fear that microwave ovens cause cancer, there was a kind of intuitive plausibility to the bra-as-bogeyman theory. All those pinching underwires couldn’t possibly be good for you, right? Squishing yourself into a metal-and-mesh straitjacket every day must have some damaging long-term effect, right?
But that common-sense generalization mushroomed into an alarmist conspiracy theory, embellished by a handful of narrow, ambiguous studies and whipped up by Internet hysteria. The truth, whatever it was, became less clear as the years passed. Cancer groups flatly dismissed the idea without showing any proof, while Singer and Grismaijer stoked doubt by arguing that financial self-interest on the part of the medical establishment and the lingerie industry explained why both groups supposedly ignored a preventable global health-care crisis.
But, like other debunked cancer theories, it became a dangerous myth that distracted people from the real, known risks associated with a disease that afflicts one in 9 women. How many women threw out their bras, thinking that improved their odds, but did NOT change risky behaviors or commit to healthy diet and exercise regimens that have been proven conclusively to reduce one’s likelihood of developing cancer?
The debate over the connection between bras and breast cancer is far from over and further studies to confirm — or not — the results of the Seattle study would be helpful. In the meantime, women can take some comfort from these findings and breathe a little easier when getting dressed each day.