There is scientific support for the plausibility of connecting the use of bras with breast disease. Two published studies have shown that women who wear bras have much higher breast cancer rates than women who don’t wear a bra. Singer and Grismaijer, a husband and wife research team, published a study of almost 5000 women in the book Dressed to Kill: The Link Between Breast Cancer and Bras. They found that the more hours per day that woman wear bras, the higher their rates of breast cancer. Their theory is that bras can bind and constrict the lymphatic circulation. This prevents the natural flushing out of accumulated cancer-causing wastes and toxins from the breast. Fluid pooling could then result in fibrocystic changes (benign lumps, cysts, and pain). This gives a breeding ground for various problems, including cancer.
The odds of getting breast cancer dramatically increased with bra-wearing over 12 hours per day
The study showed that:
- Women who wore their bras 24 hours per day had a 3 out of 4 chance of developing breast cancer (in their study, n=2056 for the cancer group and n=2674 for the standard group).
- Women who wore bras more than 12 hour per day but not to bed had a 1 out of 7 risk.
- Women who wore their bras less than 12 hours per day had a 1 out of 152 risk.
- Women who wore bras rarely or never had a 1 out of 168 chance of getting breast cancer.
The overall difference between 24 hour wearing and not at all was a 125-fold difference.
Another possible mechanism at play here is that bras prevent the natural movement of the breasts and thereby also hamper circulation. People experience something similar when their feet swell and their legs "go to sleep" on long airplane flights (lack of movement, and pressure on the legs). By the way, contrary to a common myth, going bra-less (many women prefer the more positive term "bra-free") will not make you sag more. In fact, some women actually find that they sag less, presumably because their chest ligaments and muscles improve their tone and strength when they must do the work of supporting the breasts (one doctor said it is a matter of "Use it or lose it.") Medical research gives plausibility to this theory, since research shows that ligaments depend on weight-bearing and movement for maintaining proper structure and function.
Over 90% of women with fibrocystic changes find
improvement when they stop wearing their brassieres.
Dr. Gregory Heigh
Lymphatic circulation in many tissues (especially the primary lymphatics) are highly dependent on movement. When you sit for a long time on an airplane flight, your feet and ankles can swell, because lymphatic circulation goes to near zero. Wearing a bra, especially a constricting one with under wires and if worn to bed, prevents normal lymphatic flow and would likely lead to anoxia (lower than normal oxygen content), which has been related to fibrosis, which has been linked to increased cancer risk. Women who exercise have lower risk, which could relate to better lymphatic circulation. Ralph L. Reed, Ph.D. states “Every subtle bounce of the breast while moving, walking, running, etc. gently massages the breast and increases lymphatic flow and thus cleans the breast of toxins and wastes that arise from cellular metabolism.”
The lymph system is a network of organs, lymph nodes, lymph ducts, and lymph vessels that make and move lymph from tissues to the bloodstream. The lymph system is a major part of the body’s immune system.
Lymph is a clear-to-white fluid made of:
- White blood cells, especially lymphocytes, the cells that attack bacteria in the blood
- Fluid from the intestines called chyle, which contains proteins and fats
Lymph nodes are soft, small, round- or bean-shaped structures. They usually cannot be seen or easily felt. They are located in clusters in various parts of the body, such as the neck, armpit, groin, and inside the center of the chest and abdomen. Lymph nodes make immune cells that help the body fight infection. They also filter the lymph fluid and remove foreign material such as bacteria and cancer cells.
Ken L. Smith, Breast Health Facilitator for ACS explains on his website that before brassieres were made commercially available, some women wore corsets that literally bound the body very tightly, compressing the internal organs and forcing them into new positions. Corsets created an unnaturally small waist, suggesting the term "hourglass figure". Serious medical consequences accompanied one’s wearing corsets and other garments that bound, contorted and restricted the body. Fainting commonly occurred because of the impact those garments made on the body.
Garments and various devices that led to the development of what is now referred to as a brassiere, date back into history. In 1893, Marie Tucek made a "breast supporter" that looked a lot like a modern brassiere. It had pockets for the breasts and straps and closures like we use today. During the early part of the twentieth century, Mary Phelps Jacobs asked a seamstress to put together two handkerchiefs and a pink ribbon to make something she could wear under her dress instead of her bulky and restrictive corset. Ms. Jacobs designed that garment to provide some control over the movement of her breasts, by flattening them against her chest.
It is not known whether this breast movement was a common concern of women in those days, or if only Mary herself was concerned about it. There must have been SOME demand for the result of her efforts, because Mary patented her idea in 1914, calling it a "brassiere", and later sold the patent to a company named Warner Brothers Corset Company in Bridgport, Connecticut for $1,500. Ida and William Rosenthal started the Maidenform Company to sell dresses and other garments, and designed a garment that helped women’s busts to better fit the dresses that Maidenform sold. William was the first to group women into "cup sizes" and "stages of life", and Ida invented the clip for adjusting the shoulder strap.
Doctor Niels H. Lauersen, M.D., Ph.D., and Eileen Stukane describe in their book, The Complete Book of Breast Care, a question that many people have asked: "IS A BRA GOOD OR BAD FOR YOUR BREASTS? – – Neither! There is no medical reason to wear a bra, so the decision is yours, based on your own personal comfort and aesthetics. Whether you have always worn a bra or always gone braless, age and breastfeeding will naturally cause your breasts to sag."
 Dressed to Kill: The Link Between Breast Cancer and Bras (ISBN # 0-89529-664-0, Avery Publishing Group, 1995)