Don't burn your bra just yet

Are recent reports linking bras to breast cancer based on nothing more than a misunderstanding of the results of a study carried out at a Bristol hospital?

Julia Stuart
Thursday 02 November 2000 01:00 GMT

Women who read the Sunday papers could be forgiven for having burnt their bras by Monday. Reports of a new study linking the wearing of bras with possible breast cancer no doubt left many women contemplating "doing a Dimmock".

Women who read the Sunday papers could be forgiven for having burnt their bras by Monday. Reports of a new study linking the wearing of bras with possible breast cancer no doubt left many women contemplating "doing a Dimmock".

However, contrary to what was reported, the study, which was commissioned by Channel 4's Dispatches programme, found no link between bras and cancer. What it did show, however, was that women with breast cysts tended to feel less pain if they went bra-free.

Robert Mansell, professor of surgery at the University Hospital of Wales, Cardiff, and Simon Cawthorn, consultant surgeon at Bristol's Frenchay Hospital, carried out a study of 100 women with breast cysts. They were asked to keep a diary of any breast pain they experienced for three months while wearing a bra, and any pain experienced during three months au naturel. ''What we were looking at was whether wearing a bra would increase the number of cysts, and whether it affected their breast pain,'' said Mr Cawthorn.

''We found that they still had lots of cysts, but that wearing a bra didn't actually cause cysts, which is interesting as it had been suggested that there is such a link.'' Good scientific evidence has, however, shown a link between breast cysts and cancer, he said.

''What we did show was that there was a small, but statistically significant reduction in the number of days that women recorded having breast pain when they avoided wearing a bra. It wasn't a huge difference. It was a 7 per cent reduction.''

The women reported pain for around 30 per cent of the time when they were wearing a bra, and 23 per cent of the time when they weren't.

''The women weren't selected specifically because they had a lot of breast pain. I think the study needs to be repeated with women selected for having severe breast pain, and we plan to do that.''

Sixty to 70 per cent of women experience breast pain at some time in their life. Mr Cawthorn advised sufferers to check that they were wearing a correctly fitting bra. Of the 75 million bras bought in the UK every year - representing an industry worth £600m - 75 per cent will be the wrong size.Mr Cawthorn continued: "If, despite checking that their bra fits comfortably, they have still got pain, then they might find some relief from avoiding wearing a bra. Certainly some of the women in the study noticed quite a significant reduction in their pain.''

There was no suggestion from the study that wearing a bra might lead to cancer. ''To link wearing a bra with breast cancer is, I think, excessively alarming, sensationalist and not in any way related to the findings of our study,'' he said.

Researchers in Paris, however, have found that women with monthly breast pain are twice as likely to get breast cancer. They concluded that, statistically, pain is as significant a risk factor as a family history of cancer.

But Mr Cawthorn is highly sceptical. ''There is no good scientific evidence to link breast pain with breast cancer. There are lots of studies that link them, but they all have a very dubious scientific basis.''

Rae Marsh, 38, a carer from Bristol, was one of the women who took part in the study. Ditching her bra reduced her pain so dramatically, she now rarely wears one. Married with an 11- and six-year-old, she has suffered from breast cysts since the early-Eighties. Her breasts started getting painful 10 years ago, and have been gradually getting worse. ''Any movement - walking, running, anything that made your boobs move made the pain worse,'' she said. ''You are just constantly aware of the pain. You try to adapt your life around it.''

Mrs Marsh, who takes a size 36B, says she has always worn a correctly fitting bra, and one that offers maximum support. She dreaded not wearing one for the study. ''I thought: 'How am I going to cope?' But you just get on with it. If I was wearing a blouse I just made sure it had pockets on the front, or that it was made of thick material, or was baggy. If I thought it was too see-through, I just wore a camisole. I even bought a pretty vest. It wasn't nearly as bad as I thought it would be. My friends said they wouldn't have known if I hadn't told them.''

She experienced a dramatic reduction in pain. ''It reduced so drastically that I nearly dropped out of the study, because I didn't want to put a bra back on. When I had to put it back on for the three months, I got a bit depressed because the pain quickly returned.''

She now only wears a bra on the odd social occasion. ''It doesn't help everybody, but not wearing a bra has worked wonderfully for me,'' she says.

It also worked wonderfully for Marian Godden, 57, an administration clerk from Bristol. She started getting breast cysts nine years ago, and has had over 40 aspirated. She, too, always wore very well-fitting bras, and had even been to a corsetier.

Yet the mother-of-one, who takes a size 36B, suffered from such severe pain that she would walk around the house holding her breasts and moaning. It all changed, however, when she stopped wearing a bra.

''When I took it off, I still had the cysts, but I had no pain. It went instantly. It transformed my life, that's the only way I can describe it,'' said Mrs Godden.

''I feel brilliant. I felt slightly embarrassed at first without a bra, then I thought 'Oh this is stupid'. I don't wear a bra anymore. It's not until you leave it off that you realise you have this tight band round you chest, and the straps sometimes dig into your shoulders.

"I can't believe that wearing something that is supposed to be such a vital piece of a woman's clothing could have been the problem.''

Women have nothing to fear from increased sagging in their breasts if they ditch their bra - as gravity will still get them in the end. ''Bras don't prevent breasts from sagging,'' said Professor Mansell. ''With regard to stretching of the breast ligaments and drooping in later life, that occurs very regularly anyway, and that's a function of the weight, often of heavy breasts, and these women are wearing bras and it doesn't prevent it.''

Even the chief executive of the bra manufacturers, Playtex, John Dixey, agrees. ''We have no medical evidence that wearing a bra could prevent sagging, because the breast itself is not muscle so keeping it toned up is an impossibility. What it can do, particularly for larger-breasted women, is provide comfort and support.'' But clearly, as the study showed, not comfort for everyone.

'Dispatches: Bras - the Bare Facts' is on tonight, at 10pm on Channel 4

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