Hi, Surly Amy.
I recently went shopping with my mom and she saw that I had picked out a bra with under wire in it. She immediately began telling me that under-wire causes breast cancer and since we have a history of breast cancer, under-wired bras are a death sentence for us. I have heard a bit about the whole “under-wire = death” and I highly doubt that it is true. Is there any scientific basis supporting my well-meaning mother and friends?
The idea that underwire bras can cause cancer is an urban myth that started in 1995 whena book called Dressed to Kill, by Sydney Ross Singer and Soma Grismaijer came out. In the book the authors claimed that women who wore tight fitting bras everyday where more likely to get breast cancer. They recommended that women wear no bra at all. Not so surprisingly, this research did not pan out and Scientific American did an excellent take down of this research in a 2007 article called: Fact or Fiction? Underwire Bras Cause Cancer.
The bra cancer link simply does not have evidence to back it up. There are too many factors the research did not take into consideration and no real evidence to back up the claims. From the Scientific American article:
It just really is not logical in terms of what would increase your risk of breast cancer,” says Louise Brinton, chief of the hormonal and reproductive epidemiology branch of the National Cancer Institute. Brinton, who has been doing research in the field for 30 years, says commonly accepted breast cancer risk factors are generally things that affect endogenous hormone levels.
These risk factors include how old a woman is and the age at which she had her first child. (The risk increases for women who have not had children, or who have given birth after the age of 30.) Breast-feeding and exercise are thought to lower risk, whereas a family history of the disease increases it. Scientists also know that 5 to 10 percent of breast cancers are linked to BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations.
As with many simple urban myths the underwire bra story has managed to lurk in the collective subconscious of the culture and it pops it head up now an again. It’s a story that sounds somewhat plausible and can easily be passed along in casual conversations and this gives it staying power. So just to put our minds at ease I also ran your question past David H. Gorski, MD, PhD who is an oncologist and managing editor of Science Based Medicine Blog. His short answer was this:
The answer is, of course, no. Underwire bras do not cause breast cancer.
He then gave a link to a post he wrote that addresses many of the myths and outright quackery surrounding breast cancer and breast cancer awareness. You can read that detailed post in its entirety here.
If there was evidence for underwire bras causing cancer you would think we would see some warning labels on bras. It has been 17 years since the myth began but there is still no evidence to back the claim and no need for warnings or alarm.
Bras may be at times very uncomfortable, but they aren’t trying to kill you.
Breast cancer is a very scary thing and we often feel a lack of control around issues like this so we try to find ways in our own life that we can gain some sort of control over what may or may not cause the disease. Unfortunately, the answers are not as simple as what type of bra you are wearing. We often have little or no control of disease onset. We do however, have some control over early detection and some very effective ways of fighting the disease. The best thing you can do, especially if breast cancer is a risk in your family is to get regular breast cancer screenings and do your best to follow a healthy lifestyle.
There are plenty of things in life to worry about but your bra isn’t one one of them.
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