Actress Gwyneth Paltrow is under fire for a post on her website GOOP by Dr. Habib Sadeghi with the inflammatory title “Could There Possibly Be a Link Between Underwire Bras and Breast Cancer??” The research discussed in the article has been widely discredited, including by the American Cancer Society.
In fact, in a 2014 study in which 1,044 women ages 55 to 74 were interviewed about their bra wearing, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (also known as Fred Hutch) found absolutely no link between bras and breast cancer. Specifically, Lu Chen, a researcher in the Public Health Sciences Division at Fred Hutch, said in an article on the center’s website (one that’s cited in a footnote of the GOOP article), “Our study found no evidence that wearing a bra increases a woman’s risk for breast cancer. The risk was similar no matter how many hours per day women wore a bra, whether they wore a bra with underwire, or at what age they began wearing a bra.”
Diane Mapes, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011 and underwent chemotherapy, radiation and a double mastectomy (what she calls “the full monty”), is a public health writer for FredHutch.org and also blogs about her breast cancer experience at DoubleWhammied.com. She told Salon, “If you get your advice from Gwyneth Paltrow, you’re probably not serving yourself particularly well. If people want public health advice, there’s a lot of other sites where they can go to get it.” In addition to Fred Hutch, Mapes recommended the websites of The American Cancer Society, Susan G. Komen for the Cure and Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation. She also recommends the weekly Breast Cancer Social Media Twitter chat (using the hashtag #BCSM), which takes place every Monday night at 9 pm EST as a way to connect with breast cancer patients, survivors and researchers as well as doctors working in the field, including radiologists, oncologists, and breast surgeons.
Mapes is frustrated by the resurgence of the false bra/breast cancer link. “It comes up all the time and it’s ridiculous,” she said. She calls the GOOP piece “clickbait,” adding that “it’s not driving the conversation forward, it’s driving it backwards.” As for why it continues to propagate? According to Mapes, “People are confused and upset and they want some way to try to protect themselves so they come up with these notions, but it’s not a scientifically proven notion. There’s other things that people should worry about [regarding] cancer. You want to make sure you’re at a good weight; you want to make sure you don’t drink a lot and exercise regularly. You also want to make sure you get mammograms and know your breast cancer risks, know if it’s in your family, know if you have dense breasts. These are things that might be connected to breast cancer, but it’s not your bra.”
Adrienne Santos-Longhurst, a freelance writer and the daughter of a “stage IV breast cancer fighter,” had strong words for Paltrow and GOOP. She told Salon, “When my mom was first diagnosed early stage and given the ‘all clear,’ I’d have laughed this off, but my mother is now stage IV and I am angry. I am angry that after 11 years of being ‘cancer-free,’ her cancer metastasized and is now considered incurable. And I am especially angry about all of the misinformation that’s out there, like the GOOP piece. After much research on the possible causes of cancer, both for writing projects and my own personal interest—seeing as how I feel my breasts are two ticking time bombs dangling from my body—I know that underwire bras have never been proven to increase breast cancer risk.”
Santos-Longhurst was also quick to point out that an underwire bra couldn’t possibly have caused her mother’s breast cancer. “Research aside, my mother has to this day never worn an underwire bra, instead favoring the seamed ‘torpedo-tits’ styling of bras from her heyday that she always buys a little loose so they ‘can breathe.’”
Stef Woods, a breast cancer survivor who, like Mapes, underwent a chemotherapy, radiation and a double mastectomy, called out the GOOP article for fear-mongering. “It wasn't burying the lede, it was burying the facts. I think it was done in a way to instill fear and to get hits and to create a controversy, and it’s done that. But if the message is education, that's not what's happening here,” she said. Woods, who is an American University instructor of American Studies, specializing in social media, sexuality, nonprofits, and activism, told Salon it’s vital to analyze any information presented about breast cancer critically. That means not simply accepting something as factual because the author has the title “Dr” before their name. Woods advises looking at authors of articles by asking “What’s their background? Are they affiliated with an integrated health center like the author of GOOP’s article or are they an MD affiliated with a breast care center or a cancer center or involved with cancer research?”
Woods, who’s blogged about topics such as breast cancer gene testing and offered her advice for newly diagnosed breast cancer patients, said, “I'd heard, previously to being diagnosed, about the link between breast cancer and bras, but once I did more research, then you learn, that's a myth. Once you talk to doctors in the field, then you learn that's actually not true.”
Woods wants women like Paltrow and others with major platforms to write about breast cancer not just in October, during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but throughout the year. She said the media needs “to recognize that people are being diagnosed and people are concerned about cancer every day of the year. There was a time when I think the pink ribbon and awareness over this issue were needed. It's not anymore. We know that breast cancer exists. Thankfully women are not shamed and shunned the way they once were. What can be done 12 months of the year to educate from reliable medical resources?” She suggested sites like GOOP talk to people who are working in the field or focus on individual female patients or survivor perspectives.
Specifically taking GOOP to task, Woods noted, “That was a long article. In my social media classes, we talk about how you have three to five seconds to keep someone on the first paragraph. I highly doubt the majority of [GOOP] readers were getting to the bottom of that article to read about the National Cancer Institute.”
Santos-Longhurst also expressed her dismay at the damage an article like GOOP’s can do. “A breast cancer diagnosis inevitably leads to women wondering what they did wrong and what they could have done to prevent it,” she said. “This is reality for all women diagnosed and their loved ones. Articles like this only fuel that and lead women to blame themselves for something that they had no control over. The amount of regret and stress that this adds on top of all the stress that comes with cancer and treatment takes a toll physically and emotionally on all involved. As for women like me who are worried about their breast cancer risk, articles like this don’t educate; they simply create more fear and offer no value.”