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Breast cancer: Risks, myths and controversy

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
What causes breast cancer?

Breast cancer awareness month is a perfect time for women to understand what they can do to prevent the disease. For women there are genuine risks that you may think you can’t control. There are also myths and controversy about what causes the disease.

Lifestyle factors boost the chances of the disease in addition to aging, family history and hereditary gene mutations. According to Cancer.org, 5 to 10% of breast cancers are thought to be hereditary. Genetic testing can provide more information about your individual chances of breast cancer.

Having a close blood relative with breast cancer means you might be at higher risk.

If you’re Caucasian, your risk of breast cancer is greater than that of an African-American woman.

Dense breast tissue and fibrocystic breast disease also put women at higher risk for breast cancer.

The hormone DES (diethylstilbestrol), given to women in the 1960’s to prevent miscarriage, also raises the chances of cancer of the breast.

Menopause past age 55 is also considered a slight risk for the disease because of a woman’s increased exposure to estrogen.

If you started menstruating before age 12, your risk of the disease might also be just slightly higher.

The good news is that even if breast cancer is in your genes, your breasts are dense or you’ve taken hormones in the past, you can still take steps to thwart the second leading cause of cancer deaths among women.

Especially if you’re at high risk for breast cancer from family history, avoid alcohol or limit your intake to one beverage a day. Drinking raises the risk of the disease for all women.

Keep your weight under control and exercise regularly. There is evidence that obesity and sedentary lifestyle and risk of breast cancer. The risk is higher for women who gain weight later in life, compared to those who have been overweight since childhood.

Women who gain weight after breast cancer treatment are also at higher risk for recurrence.

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Myths and controversies

Food: Diet may not play as big a role in thwarting breast cancer as believed. Studies have looked at the link between breast cancer and dietary intake, but the results have been conflicting. Some studies suggest food plays a role, while other studies show no clear link.

That doesn't mean women should stop eating their fruits and vegetables though. Eating a healthy diet that is low in saturated fat can help prevent a variety of diseases and has multiple other health benefits that includes controlling obesity, which is a known breast cancer risk factor.

Antiperspirants: There isn't any clear evidence that antiperspirant use leads to breast cancer. Parabens contained in underarm deodorants were linked to tumor development from toxins that build up in the lymph nodes in one small study. A larger investigation found no such link.

Bras: Rumors in e-mails and one book suggest wearing a bra is unhealthy for lymph node circulation. The lymph glands remove toxins from the body. The speculation is that bras can promote breast cancer. There is no scientific basis for the claim.

Breast implants: There have been a few cases of anaplastic large cell lymphoma linked to breast implants – a rare type of lymphoma. Silicone breast implants make it harder to see breast tissue on mammogram from scarring that can occur. X-rays known as implant displacement views can be performed to see breast tissue more closely.

Environment: There has been much concern about whether exposure to chemicals in the environment raise breast cancer risk. As of now, there isn't any clear link, but it’s important to understand more studies are needed.

Experts from the Endocrine Society support the notion that environmental chemicals pose a risk for human health. An expert panel has called for 'caution' and more research in a scientific statement released last year.

Toxins: Chemicals in plastics, PCB’s, cosmetics and other personal care products could, in theory, elevate the risk of cancer of the breast. The link between environmental influences and breast cancer risk still remains controversial. Studies are ongoing.


What are The Risk Factors for Breast Cancer?

Mayo Clinic:
Types of Breast Cancer

Estimating Breast Cancer Risk

Image credit: Morguefile



I am a medical anthropologist, breast cancer researcher, and the director of the Institute for the Study of Culturogenic Disease. I am also the co-author of the book Dressed To Kill: The Link Between Breast Cancer and Bras (Avery/Penguin Putnam, 1995; ISCD Press, 2005). The ACS is lying about the bra/cancer link. Here is a study: Eur J Cancer. 1991;27(2):131-5. It says, "Premenopausal women who do not wear bras had half the risk of breast cancer compared with bra users". According to this, we could cut in half the incidence of breast cancer by eliminating the bra. That could save hundreds of thousands of women each year worldwide form getting this disease. Then there is our 1991-93 Bra and Breast Cancer Study on 5,000 US women that showed an even higher link, with bra-fee women having about the same incidence of breast cancer as men, and the rate rising the longer and tighter the bra is worn. This is a cover-up by the ACS. They REFUSE to do any research into the bra/cancer link. There is NO evidence or research that opposes this link. The ACS is working with the bra industry to keep this link from being researched. Note that the ACS also tells women to "wear your pink bra" for b.c. awareness. They don't mention that this causes breast cancer. After taking this pro-bra position, how can they ever admit their are wrong? The Komen Fdtn is also in this cover-up, and refuses to research the bra issue. They are working with the bra industry. Lots of money at stake. Breast cancer makes tens of billions of dollars of profit for the cancer industry each year. Bras bring in tens of billions each year. They don't want to end that revenue stream. And the bra industry does not want any further research so they can avoid the lawsuits that are coming. The ACS and Komen Fdtns are wolves, fleecing the people of money and ignoring the real causes of this disease. How are they going to explain to the public that it doesn't require billions of dollars of research to prevent breast cancer. All you need to do is stop constricting the breasts for long hours each day with bras. This is a crime and needs to be exposed.
Mr. Singer, thank you for your comment. Isn't it specifically 'tight fitting' bras that you have discussed as causing breast cancer? There are now a lot of options for women that don't constrict.
No, it's nonsense.There are a nubemr of stories circulating about bras and breast cancer and they are all untrue.You can't get or increase your risk of breast cancer by sleeping in a bra; or by wearing a tight bra, wearing a wired bra, wearing a bra 24/7, not wearing a bra or any of the other nonsense you might hear.Breast cancer, like other cancers, happens when normal cells change so that they behave in an uncontrolled way; your underwear cannot trigger this process or have any effect on it.Have a look at any reputablle breast cancer charity or information site; you won't find bras listed among the risk factors on any of themDo what's comfortable for you Was this answer helpful?