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Are bad bras a cancer link?

Dr. Cory Carter, a certified naturopath, instructs Karen Loiland, at left, and her daughter, JoAnn Malzahn, center, both of Ortonville, Minn., on breast self exams. Carter offers lymphatic health classes at his Rapid City clinic, Alt Med Ltd., that include a six-hour session on breast health. (Photo by Don Polovich, Journal staff)

The average human has more than 600 lymph nodes in their body, and a lot of them are located under the arm and at the edge of the breast, the same places, unfortunately, where ill-fitting bras can ride, pinch, squeeze and cause problems to breast tissue.

"If a bra fits too tight or poorly, it restricts the surface flow of blood and lymph through the breast, pooling lymphatic fluid and blood in the breast tissue" said Dr. Cory Carter, who practices alternative medicine in Rapid City. He is a board certified doctor of traditional naturopathy who has practiced for 25 years in South Dakota, the last seven of them in Rapid City.

Breast tissue is full of lymphatic tissue, and if it is constricted over time, the breast cannot do its own normal cleansing processes. That, some health practitioners believe, can cause problems in breast tissue.

Medical research has not established a proven link between bad bras and breast cancer, but Carter believes there is a strong correlation between breast disease and the improper circulation of body fluids caused by ill-fitting bras.

Carter calls lymph tissue the "body's garbage can," part of an intricate system designed to eliminate toxins from the body.

"What you'll find there often is dead and dying cells, fatty tissues, bacteria and maybe even cancerous cells," he said.

But the lymphatic system also helps the body recycle important vitamins, minerals and other parts and pieces of substances for use elsewhere.

"Lymph helps us recycle waste material to recover the stuff that our body wants to keep," he said.

At his Alt Med Ltd. clinic in Rapid City, Carter teaches a four-day class in whole-body lymphatic drainage for health professionals and/or lay people who have lymphatic disease.

Linda Kushman of Rapid City has taken the class - twice - to help her deal with lymphatic blockage that was causing numerous health problems. "My chest, neck and jaw line had constant eruptions of blemishes and boils," she said, which she attributes to toxins her skin was trying to excrete because her blocked and overloaded lymph system no longer could.

By the time she got to Carter's clinic, lymphatic congestion in her chest and torso that was caused by other underlying health problems was so extensive that she was losing mobility in her shoulders. Feeling bloated and overweight, she was constantly fatigued and lacking energy.

"You also feel sick, tired and lethargic all the time," she said.

Lymphatic massage has been "really, really effective," in relieving her symptoms, Kushman said, which included extreme breast tenderness. "Once you experience what lymphatic congestion is, you learn that it is not just the fat and extra weight you thought it was," she said.

Women who have undergone mastectomy or other breast surgery often deal with lymphedema, a swelling of lymph tissue.

The lymph system class now includes a six-hour session on breast health, after Carter discovered so many people, both in and out of the health field, were ill-informed about it.

"I was amazed at how many people are not even taught how to do a breast exam," he said. "And most women don't realize how far the breast tissue extends."

It is much more than just what you put in the cup of a bra, Carter said.

A high percentage of cancerous breast lumps start in breast tissue that is located high on the chest wall, he said, and many women don't know to examine that area. Hormonally active breast tissue also extends half way under the arm.

Carter routinely sees the formation of cysts and even open sores on women from badly fitting bras. "I have seen people wear their skin raw or bloody and think it will heal if they just stop wearing the bra for a few days," he aid.

Underwire bras, in particular, can cause problems when improperly fitted, Carter said. "We tell women who wear an underwire bra to make sure that all the breast is inside it," he said.

The 1995 book "Dressed to Kill" provided strong statistical evidence for the argument that wearing bras that constrict or compress breast tissue may be linked to breast cancer. "There are lots of people who think that link is there," Carter said.

When breast tissue is trapped under the wire or pushed tightly against it, the wire can create, over time, something akin to a callus in the delicate structures of the breast. "Breast tissue is mostly adipose (fatty) tissue, lymph tissue and ducts. If these wires ride on any of those structures, a thickening in those small, delicate structures of the breast makes it so fluid can't move freely and it starts backing up toxins," he explained.

Kushman no longer wears underwire bras. "You wouldn't find me anywhere near an underwire," she said.

Instead, she does breast massage daily in the shower and gets a weekly lymphatic massage.

"I don't know if I was on my way to getting breast cancer or not," she said, "but lymphatic massage has completely eliminated any breast tenderness I had, even my cyclical monthly tenderness."

In more than 30 years of selling custom-fitted bras, Deanna Forman of Rapid City has seen many health problems caused by ill-fitting bras, including underwire bras.

In addition to lymphatic circulation issues, women can develop problems with their backs, shoulders and even lungs from lack of proper support of heavy breasts, she said.

"I like to say it's all about the foundation. Healthy breasts are like a house. If there's no foundation of support, the walls are going to fall in," she said.

Forman sells bras that range in cost from $42 up to more than $100, depending on cup size. They are specially designed to provide structure and support without impeding lymphatic circulation.

Carter agrees that breasts need adequate support during vigorous physical activity. "For running or activities that cause stretching or bouncing of the breast, give it support," he said.

But when women are resting or relaxing at home where modesty is not an issue, he advocates going braless.

"Not that we advocate bra burning," he said, "but where modesty is not an issue, giving the breast some time to move freely is a good thing," he said.

Contact Mary Garrigan at 394-8410 or

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