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Breast Health

It used to be that only older women got breast cancer; now increasing numbers of younger women – even women in their 20’s – are developing breast cancer. More and more people of all ages, sexes and ethnic backgrounds are getting sick. Shouldn’t we be asking “What’s going on? What can we do about it?”

Breasts can be early warning devices for women. If our breasts are tender, painful and lumpy, and anything other than completely healthy, they are telling us not only that something is wrong with our breasts, but that there may also be something wrong with our bodies. These signs tell us that it is time to take action to avoid more serious disease in our breasts and in the rest of our bodies.

Breast Tenderness and Excessive Effective of Estrogen

The most common breast complaints have to do with premenstrual breast tenderness. This is most commonly due to an excessive accumulation of our own natural estrogens in the breasts, relative to progesterone. It may also be due to birth control pills, which may have a stronger estrogenic effect, other medications, which exert an estrogenic effect, or environmental toxins that are estrogenic (aka xenoestrogens). Symptoms can be treated by getting out of bras as much as possible, taking supplemental progesterone, and taking iodine.

Some women may go on to develop fibrocystic breast disease, which presents as lumpy, bumpy and tender breasts. These women need to do the exact same things as women who simply have tender breasts. In addition to these steps, women can help resolve fibrocystic breast disease by taking evening primrose oil and sufficient amounts of vitamin D, and avoiding or reducing the intake of caffeine, which alters the way the body metabolizes estrogen and affects the estrogen receptors. Topical iodine applied directly to the skin over the painful cysts speeds resolution of the problem.

Breast Lumps

Another problem is a breast lump. Fortunately, over 90% of the time breast lumps are not cancerous. In younger women, a single nontender lump is almost always a non-cancerous tumor called an adenoma. Surgery is curative. However, because of the heightened awareness of breast cancer – even in young women – it can be quite alarming when a woman finds a lump in her breast. A woman is thrown into limbo, and she may feel as if she is not in control of her life. Breast lumps should not be ignored.

The first thing to do is to pay attention to when you noticed the breast lump. If the breast lump is tender and first noticed during the two weeks prior to the onset of one’s period, then it is reasonable to wait until after having a period to see if the breast lump resolves. If it gets much smaller and the tenderness disappears, this indicates fibrocystic breast disease, so follow the recommendations above. If, however, the breast lump is not tender and it does not go away, a woman needs a mammogram and an ultrasound, and possibly a biopsy.

How are the breasts different during the luteal phase?

It has been noted in the past that women who had mastectomies for breast cancer during their luteal phase -- after ovulation, the two weeks before their period -- lived longer. More of them were alive 10 years later compared to women who had mastectomies during their cycle or immediately after their cycle. This is published data. If your surgeon thinks it is hogwash, then ask, “Will it hurt to wait a week or two?” and decide for yourself.

We do not know if it’s the higher amounts of progesterone after ovulation, the increased numbers of natural killer (NK) cells (lymph cells that kill cancer cells) or something else that provides this protective effect. Women should have more progesterone post ovulation. It is thought that the progesterone is protective, and it is known that progesterone scours the breasts on a monthly basis looking for cancer “want-to-be cells” and triggers apoptosis or “cell suicide” in these wayward cells. Progesterone thus helps to keep breast cancer from growing in the breast. Separate from this activity, progesterone also slows down metastasis. What this means is that if cancerous breast tissue is disturbed during the luteal phase, there is a lower chance of metastasis. Progesterone is a woman’s friend.

Can one extend this published data to women who are having needle biopsies or excisional biopsies?

A needle biopsy is when a needle is inserted through the skin and into the mass and a small amount of tissue is aspirated (sucked up into the syringe). An excisional biopsy is when the skin is cut and the entire mass is removed. It seems reasonable to wait to do the biopsy until the woman is in her luteal phase and/or apply topical progesterone and/or take oral progesterone, so that the breast at least “thinks” it is in its luteal phase, which should reduce the woman’s risk of metastasis and help to prolong her life. NOTE: Needle biopsies do not need to be done the exact same day a suspicious mammogram or ultrasound or MRI is performed. Waiting a week or two is not going to make a difference. This is an opportunity for women to step in and take control of their destiny.

Breast-Body Interaction

There is a very real “connection” between the breasts and the rest of the body. For example, when a woman has an excess estrogenic effect in her breasts, her breasts are not the only tissue that is being affected. Excess estrogenic effect causes uterine fibroids -- and potentially uterine cancer. It is also frequently associated with very heavy periods and difficulty reaching an optimal weight. Too much estrogen layers on too much subcutaneous body fat. Too much estrogen causes girls and women to develop oversized breasts.

In addition, a woman’s needs for iodine are much higher than a man’s needs for iodine because we have breasts. Breast tissue and thyroid tissue are very similar. They both require iodine in some form for optimal health. If a woman does not have enough iodine, she will develop fibrocystic breast disease. The converse is also true; if a woman has fibrocystic breast disease, it will improve if she takes iodine orally and/or applies it topically to her breasts. Hypothyroidism due to iodine deficiency is more common in women than men because we have more breast tissue that requires more iodine.

Almost every single tissue or organ in our bodies has estrogen receptors of some type. How could we not be affected in numerous ways if we have too much or too little estrogen? Our brains, bones, immune system and cardiovascular system are all highly dependent on enough, but not too much estrogen.

Breasts and Bras

The Rationale

The basic issue about whether a bra is healthy or not for a woman’s breasts is simple. To illustrate, let’s compare breasts and testicles. If a boy’s testicle has not descended into the scrotal sac soon after birth, either the testicle is pulled down into the scrotal sac if it can be reached manually, or the little boy undergoes surgical removal of the testicle through his lower abdomen. Why take such drastic action? The undescended testicle is removed since it has a 50% greater risk of developing cancer. This is well documented in men’s health studies. The testicle is warmer inside the trunk. Brassieres keep breasts warmer.

Fertility clinics counsel couples wanting to get pregnant to have the male partner trade his tight underwear for boxers. Wearing boxers allows the testicles to be cooler and to move outside the trunk, increasing testosterone and sperm production, i.e. the testicles are healthier and are better able to do their job. Now, apply the same advisory to breasts. Breasts are outside of our trunk because they are supposed to be cooler and they are supposed to move, which allows the breasts to detoxify themselves. Brassieres keep breasts from moving.

If the breasts are tightly bound, there is an increased accumulation of estrogen made in the breasts or that flows into the breasts through the blood stream. Too much estrogen of any kind is toxic to the breasts. Other toxins also spend more time in the breasts when the breasts are tightly bound. All toxins come out of the breast through the lymphatic system.

What compromises lymphatic flow?

1. Compression of the tissues limits lymphatic flow and limits delivery of groceries/nutrients to the cells and slows down garbage/toxins being taken out of the cells.

2. Insufficient iodine, since iodine is necessary for lymphatic flow.

3. Lack of movement, since movement promotes lymphatic flow.

Dressed to Kill

There has been a lot of controversy about the health effects of wearing a brassiere since Sydney Ross Singer and his wife, Soma Grismaijer, authored the book, Dressed to Kill: The Link Between Breast Cancer and Bras, which showed how they became interested in breast issues while studying populations of women in Fiji. Women in Fiji who adopted American styles of dress and started wearing bras developed more fibrocystic breast disease and breast cancer compared to those who continued to wear their native dress, which did not include brassieres. They then came back to this country and studied a larger population of women and found that the longer a woman wore a bra the greater her risk of developing breast cancer.

When Dressed to Kill was published in 1995, there was a ripple effect. Many women and some physicians started experimenting with not wearing bras. They found that lumpy, bumpy breasts got better, and there was less premenstrual pain and tenderness. Reportedly, these women had a lower rate of breast cancer over time.

Other Studies

A number of studies have tried to disprove the association of breast diseases with wearing a brassiere and have tried to promote the safety of brassieres. Unfortunately, these studies -- and research performed most recently by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Washington State, funded by The National Cancer Institute – did not include bra-free women or women under 55. They ignored a 2008 Chinese study which showed that premenopausal women lowered their risk of breast cancer by NOT sleeping in bras. They ignored a 2011 Venezuelan study (in Spanish followed by an English translation) that showed that 76% of the women wearing “whales” (underwires) had breast abnormalities and 75% wearing bras for over 12 hours had mammary lesions. They ignored a Scottish study in 2014, that reported that breast cancer may be due to “cleavage-enhancing bras as a potential cause, due to the constricting ¬effect of inbuilt wiring on breast tissue and the lymphatic system.” (This is one of many studies coming out of Scotland linking brassiere usage and aluminum absorption and accumulation from antiperspirants with the increased incidence of breast cancer. While not politically correct in this country, the Scots are exploring these issues in an evidenced-based manner.) Even more recently, a study out of Kenya showed that the intensity of brassiere usage had an association with breast cancer occurrence.

Additionally, the first study to recognize an association between brassiere usage and the risk of breast cancer was published in 1991 by Harvard researchers. This predated the book Dressed to Kill by four years. They found premenopausal bra-free women had 50% lower risk of breast cancer compared to bra users.

The Hutchinson study only studied women who were lifetime bra wearers. The study left out the most important component: a control group. There were no bra-free women in the study! They also did not consider the tightness of the bras. Many believe that bra tightness is a key factor in the bra/cancer link since it causes more lymphatic constriction and thereby causes accumulation of more toxins in the breasts.

All the study showed was that some women who have worn bras for 40 years or longer will get breast cancer and some will not. This is not new information. Not everyone who smokes cigarettes gets cancer of the lungs; that does not mean that cigarette smoking does not cause lung cancer. The least that the authors should have done is they should have called for more research – they did not. Taken from Sydney Singer’s most recent article on brassieres.

Lastly, in 1999 the Edinburgh Breast Group published in The Lancet that women who had fibrocystic breast disease had an almost 6-fold higher risk of future breast cancer. This study firmly refuted the advice of some doctors who said that fibrocystic breast disease carried no increased risk. In all, there are now over 30 published medical and scientific research articles showing a connection between fibrocystic disease and increased breast cancer risk. (And getting out of your brassiere treats, eliminates, or substantially reduces fibrocystic breast disease.....)

Anecdotal Evidence – See for Yourself

Wearing a bra is a perfect storm for fibrocystic breast disease and breast cancer. It makes sense that if a woman who has fibrocystic breast disease does what she can to reverse it she will reduce her risk of breast cancer later in life. This is not complicated. This is also a study that you can do on yourself and learn about your body in the privacy of your own home. No big announcements, no one needs to know. Test it for yourself.

Many physicians and women have run their own experiments. To do so does not cost any money. It does not take a lot of time. It does require thinking about what to wear in a different way. If you cannot go without a bra completely, wear camisoles that have an elastic “shelf bra” or camisoles that have gently molded cups without any underwires. Wear a pullover sleep bra that is very stretchy and light. Disguise the fact that you are brafree by wearing scarves, puffy, puckered tops, jackets, vests, etc. And do not stay in anything that’s restrictive for more than 12 hours. No sleep bras. Period. If your breasts are sore, massage them lying down or standing up to move the toxins out.

If women get out of their bras and stay out of their bras for 30 days, they will notice changes in their breasts, all of which are favorable by the end of 30 days. Breast lumps and tenderness will improve, if not completely resolve. There may be a transient period of increased breast tenderness, though, due to toxins in the breast cells migrating out of those cells, and -- in a sense -- re-toxifying the adjacent breast tissue on their way out of the breasts via the lymphatic system. This generally does not last more than three weeks even in the largest-breasted women.

Do not wait for conventional medicine to come around and make a pronouncement that brassieres are unhealthy for breasts. It will not happen any time soon for many different reasons. So be adventurous and brave and proactive. Test it for yourself. Soon.

“Won’t my breasts sag?”

No. Studies in Japan and more recently in France demonstrated that women preserve or enhance their “perkiness” if they do NOT wear a bra. The breasts have ligaments in the upper outer quadrant of each breast which help them to stay perky. If we put the breasts in a sling (a brassiere) and allow the ligament to atrophy....what happens? The breasts sag more. Once the ligaments are asked to work again by getting out of the sling, the ligaments tighten up and the breasts lift. The younger the woman and the less time in a brassiere certainly influence results. It usually takes about three months to begin seeing changes. For larger breasted women it may take up to a year but it still improves. Older women who have worn bras for decades will need to do some strength training to enhance the breast shape. Flies and presses have helped many women get larger perkier breasts and even helped many avoid a breast reduction or breast lift. Women who have had multiple pregnancies and breast fed their children (which is the greatest gift you can give an infant in addition to a birth through the birth canal) will not get as perky breasts as younger women. But they will be healthier and somewhat perkier.

Syd Singer suggests that smoking which contributes to loss of elasticity in tissues, yoyo dieting, and inherited tendencies can also contribute to saggier breasts long term.

Does one have to completely forego wearing bras?

No. A woman is not going to damage her breasts by wearing a bra occasionally, but reducing the amount of time in your bra can make a huge difference in your breast health. Singer found that women who wear bras for less than 12 hours a day had a markedly reduced risk of breast cancer. So if your breasts hurt at the end of the day, you should have taken your bra off before you did. Your breasts are talking to you. Listen. Take action.

Are underwire bras worse than other bras?

Yes, because they cause more pressure around the breasts and compress the breast tissue more. Women will frequently ask, “What about when I exercise?” There is nothing wrong with wearing a sports bra to prevent nipple irritation and too much bouncing of the breasts in high-impact exercise. There is a lot difference between this and wearing a bra for over 12 hours a day.


The opinions expressed on this website are those of Elizabeth R. Vaughan, M.D., F.A.A.E.M. Many physicians - perhaps most physicians - and the American Cancer Society assert that no link has been positively demonstrated between bras and breast cancer. (But we waited 50 years for someone to demonstrate a positive link between cigarettes and lung cancer). Read the medical research page for a partial listing of relevant research upon which Dr. Vaughan bases her opinions.

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