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Monday’s medical myth: wearing a bra to bed increases your risk of breast cancer

Women’s breasts are seen in society as symbols of femininity, fertility and sexuality – so are the many different styles of bras worn to support, enhance and protect the mammary glands. Many women wear…

There’s no evidence that wearing a bra – even to bed – increases your risk of breast cancer.

Women’s breasts are seen in society as symbols of femininity, fertility and sexuality – so are the many different styles of bras worn to support, enhance and protect the mammary glands.

Many women wear bras to bed to support large, painful or nursing breasts. Others just want to counteract any sagging. But can these decorative pieces of clothing, or the underwire, cause health problems such as cancer?

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in Australian women. More than 12,000 women each year are diagnosed with the disease, with the overall risk estimated at one in nine.

Most women will meet someone during their lifetime who has been affected by the disease and its treatment. So it’s easy to see why women may be anxious about the risk of breast cancer.

What is breast cancer?

Humans are made up of millions of cells (which contain components such as DNA, chromosomes and genes) that form specialised tissues and organs such as breasts. Women’s breasts consist of lobules (mammary glands producing milk), ducts (tubes) and fatty tissue.

When abnormal cells (cancer) grow in the body, an immune response is triggered and these cells are killed. If the body doesn’t recognise these foreign cells they multiply and start to invade other cells, tissues and organs in the body. These cancer cells then multiply into tumours or lumps in the body – or in the case of breast cancer, form lumps in breast tissue.

Depending on their size, these lumps can sometimes be felt or seen on mammography screening. Or they may be detected using ultrasounds or biopsies. Other signs of breast cancer include:

  • changes to breast shape or size,
  • breast dimpling, rash or other skin changes,
  • lumpiness or thickening of the breast,
  • unusual or persistent breast pain,
  • nipple sores or discharge,
  • swelling or discomfit in armpit.

More than 12,000 Australian women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year. Flickr/kidicarus

What causes breast cancer?

The cause of breast cancer is still unknown. However, there are some known causes for other cancers such as lung cancer, such as asbestos exposure. Factors that cause cancer are called carcinogens – these include: tobacco, alcohol, ultraviolet sunlight, radon exposure (radiation), chemical agents such as formaldehyde and contaminated water containing arsenic.

Women’s risk of developing breast cancer increases with age (over 50 years). Other risk factors include:

  • personal history,
  • family history,
  • inheritance of mutations in the genes BRCA2, BRCA1 and CHEK2,
  • exposure to female hormones (natural and administered),
  • obesity (poor diet and inadequate exercise), and
  • excess alcohol consumption.

Cancer Australia’s website has a very quick and easy tool to help women calculate their risk of developing breast cancer. It also includes advice about reducing your cancer risk through lifestyle modifications such as reducing alcohol consumption, maintaining a healthy weight and diet, regular exercise and mammograms for women over 50 years.

Treatment

The treatment of breast cancer depends on the stage at which it is detected. Women diagnosed with early breast cancer are usually offered a choice of either breast conservation surgery (lumpectomy-removal of the breast lump) with radiotherapy or mastectomy surgery (removal of the breast). Other treatment (sometimes called adjunct treatment) for breast cancer may include chemotherapy, axillary clearance (removal of affected lymph nodes) and hormonal therapy.

It’s important to remember that breast cancer does occur in younger women. So if you notice any breast changes or are concerned about your risk, don’t hesitate to consult your doctor. Early detection of breast cancer is likely to improve the outcomes of treatment.

But rest assured, there is no evidence that wearing bras – with or without underwires, during the day or at night – increases your risk of breast cancer.

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12 Comments sorted by

  1. Daniel Heath

    logged in via Twitter

    This reads like a tabloid piece - using a provocative headline which is irrelevant to the body of the article to boost pageviews.

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    1. Misha Ketchell

      Managing Editor at The Conversation

      In reply to Daniel Heath

      I don't think that was the intention Daniel. I was there when the idea was pitched and it was always about the notion, which apparently circulates, that breast cancer risk can be increased by wearing a bra to bed. I actually thought the treatment was fairly straight and circumspect.

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    2. Tanya Mather

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Misha Ketchell

      But it doesn't actually discuss where the myth comes from and why those claims are wrong, like other Monday Myth articles. The final sentence really doesn't address the question. It's a good explainer about the disease, but otherwise pretty disappointing.

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    3. Jan Burgess

      Retired

      In reply to Daniel Heath

      As a woman nearing 60, I had never heard of this "urban myth". I clicked on the article not because of the provocative or salacious nature of the headline, but because I was interested in the subject.

      I would have preferred to have the myth exposed in the early part of the article, instead of waiting till the last paragraph, but overall I thought it was a factual and sensible read. I thought I was fairly well informed about breast cancer, but I learnt some new things, so thank you to the author.

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    4. Daniel Heath

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Misha Ketchell

      I agree with Jan that it's a well written, informative, factual piece about breast cancer. I don't think the body of the article fits the headline very well; there are only three paragraphs which refer to bras in the entire text.

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    5. jamie jardine

      Acupuncturist

      In reply to Daniel Heath

      They must be beginning to run low on myths at the conversation..

      Here's a popular myth that needs busting -

      "Only modern scientific medicine is effective and all alternative health practitioners are charlatans and quacks who seek to rip off the public by providing ineffective treatments"..

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    6. Sue Ieraci

      Public hospital clinician

      In reply to jamie jardine

      The Monday Medical Myths do seem to be scraping the barrel.

      Perhaps it's time for daily anti-science myths - there would be a never-ending supply - from MMR vaccine causing autism to homeopathic "remedies" having any therapeutic effect beyond placebo.

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    7. Sean Alexander

      Jack of all

      In reply to jamie jardine

      Hardly surprising the amount of "downs" you got for that comment there Jamie, even though the essence of it is a reasonable question to pose. This is a fairly mainstream science-based website after all. As a fairly mainstream scientist myself I can see *some* value in *some* alternative medicine *sometimes*. The numbers stack up to mainstream being better most of the time. And many alternative therapists do make themselves look bad- as soon as someone is into a bit of it it seems that they have to support every part of it including homoeopathy, fish slapping and singing Kumbaya (generalising of course). But on the other side it's sad to see conventional practitioners dismissing anything that's not in their book as quackery, as you have pointed out. Only when something has been rigorously tested should it be called quackery or effective.

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    8. Daniel Heath

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to jamie jardine

      Isn't alternative medicine (by definition) medicine for which there is insufficient evidence?
      Once something is shown to work, it isn't alternative any more.

      Am I wrong to think that alternative health practitioners are using unproven techniques in place of proven ones?

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    9. Jan Burgess

      Retired

      In reply to Jan Burgess

      In a rather horrifying anecdotal evidence to this - I was diagnosed with breast cancer sooin after this article.

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    10. Jan Burgess

      Retired

      In reply to Jan Burgess

      I do wish we could edit our comments - sorry for the premature post.

      What I meant to say was I can contribute a rather horrifying bit of anecdotal evidence to this - I never wear a bra to bed and in spite of that habit, I was diagnosed with breast cancer soon after this article. (just before Christmas). I'm now recovering from a bilateral mastectomy and SND. Thanks to this technique, I only lost 5 nodes from each side and they were clear. Thus I am able to skip the chemo bullet and radiation and JUST have the dubious pleasure of 5 years of Arimidex,

      Just imagine how much worse it would have been if I HAD worn bras to bed!!!

      In a final twist, I have now been recommended to wear a good quality sports bra to bed to maintain light compression on the incisions and to keep the area warm (lack of insulation makes it feel very cold)

      So maybe the myth got it backwards - it should be - Having breast cancer causes you to wear a bra to bed ?

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