Looks like it's bra-burning time
YOU might have noticed advertisements taken out by Ero, a
home-grown lingerie chain, declaring that bras cause breast
cancer. Without impugning the company's motives, let's study
this, well, loaded question: Should women stop wearing
Ero's claim is based on a study detailed in a book, Dressed
To Kill (1995, Avery Publishing). In it, the authors,
husband-and-wife team Syd and Soma Singer, argued that bras
with underwires squeeze breasts until they can't drain lymph.
A clear fluid that moves through our arteries and tissues,
lymph is laden with cancer-causing toxins that we all absorb
from the environment. Over time, says the book, these toxins
cause breast cancer.
Alas for the Singers, experts have roundly dismissed this
cancer theory. Despite numerous studies since the 18th
century, lymphatic physiology is not completely understood.
Nevertheless, the research on which Dressed To Kill is based,
We do know that arteries carry fresh blood to all parts of
the body, breasts included, while used blood leaves the
breasts through veins and is pumped back to the lungs to be
The arteries also bring lymph, which then leaves the
bloodstream to circulate through tissues, cleansing them.
Next, fine vessels called lymphatics collect the used lymph to
drain it back into the body's central drainage system. Along
the lymphatics, there are stations, or nodes, which filter out
and trap bugs, cancer cells and toxins.
Think of arteries as two-lane highways bringing oxygen and
nutrients to the breasts, and veins as one-lane highways
taking used blood away, with lymphatics forming another
one-lane highway channelling lymph away. In short, two similar
lanes in, two different lanes out. Whereas the heart pumps
blood through the arteries and veins, lymph flows along the
lymphatics passively when their surrounding tissues
Whence came the Singers' ideas about a bra-lymph
Women in poorer countries generally go bra-less, the
Singers noted, as they have done for millennia. The couple
reasoned that natural breast movements that occur with every
step taken give bra-less women a healthy breast lymphatic
circulation - until bras immobilise and constrict it. For
example, while Australian aboriginal women have virtually no
breast cancer - they aren't assimilated into the mainstream
white culture - Maori women in New Zealand, who are
westernised bra-wearers, have high breast cancer rates.
To substantiate their postulate, the Singers interviewed
some 4,730 American women. They found that women who wore bras
for 24 hours daily were 125 times more likely to have breast
cancer than those who went bra-less, 113 times more often if
they wore the bra for 12 hours each day.
That's a striking discovery - if true. But there are a
couple of problems.
First, there are no peer-reviewed studies that report a
bra-cancer association, or that bras cause toxins to
accumulate in the breasts.
Second, the Singer study did not exclude other risk factors
as good studies should. Their sample was a biased one - all
Caucasian, mostly 'medium income', aged 30 to 79 - half of
whom had had breast cancer. This reason, among others, made it
unsuitable for publication in reputable
If you have a startling hypothesis, you need to build up a
body of work by first publishing in reputable journals because
publication signals that your research is rigorous and
credible to your peers. If a consensus forms that you are on
the right track, you might then publish a book about it,
citing chapter and verse from your own work or the work of
Instead, the Singers fired off what they called their
'explosive' survey findings to the most prestigious cancer
research institutes. None responded. The reason, the Singers
surmised, was that the lingerie business, like the cancer
business, was huge, so vested interests were stacked against
Third, a controversial hypothesis must withstand testing.
From 2001, the Singers say, they have been comparing Fijian
women, half of whom wear bras and half of whom don't. While
both groups live in the same environment and eat the same
diet, the bra-wearers get breast cancer at the same rates as
US women do, while bra-less Fijian women have almost no breast
If true, this would be strongly supportive evidence - but
it has only been issued as press releases and hasn't been
published in respected journals.
The Singers, who have no bona fide academic appointments,
solicit - on the Internet - financial contributions to fund
their research, which they conduct from their 'institute', a
27ha farm in Hawaii.
Their supporters, even if they grant that their research
methods aren't up to scratch, could still argue that there is
merit to their bra-squeezed lymph argument
The Singers say that 'because lymphatic vessels are very
thin, they are extremely sensitive to pressure and are easily
compressed'. Yes, tight bras with underwires do leave red
marks and creases on the skin so they might impede the set of
superficial lymphatics that drains lymph from the breast skin
and the other set that drains the nipples.
However, the breast has a third and deeper set of
lymphatics that drains deep breast tissues. This is the very
set involved, if breast cancer spreads, that is removed during
cancer surgery. But it is too deep for bras to impinge on, so
its lymph should move around as the breasts move inside a bra
- except, perhaps, for masochists who wear lycra bras so
unimaginably tight they hurt.
Nevertheless, Ero's tagline 'Stop Wearing Bras' does make
sense. It is a myth foisted on women that bras keep the
breasts perky, because all breasts must eventually sag with
age as milk glands are replaced by fat.
There's just no good reason to wear a bra: If modesty is a
concern, loose camisoles will do fine.
Sisters, it's bra-burning time.