By Elisabeth Dale
This week’s media reports were filled with stories claiming a link exists between a woman’s larger breasts and an increased risk of breast cancer. What started out as one news story in the UK’s Daily Mail morphed into multiple outlets reinforcing, by repetition, this scientific conclusion. From the Huffington Post, to CBS and Glamour, women were informed about the relationship of busty bosoms to diminished breast health. Some outlets tweaked their stories and touted the discovery of a gene that regulates a female’s breast size. Comments to news posts ranged from “makes sense, that’s why it’s important to get a mammogram,” to “glad mine are smaller.” What became difficult to assess were the specific facts behind these non-stop news headlines.
The source for all these articles came from published research carried out by a private genetics testing company, 23andme. And how was breast size analyzed? It was by self-reported bra size, via a survey of the company’s 1600 plus study participants and clients. Lingerie industry insiders and others know that many women don’t wear the proper size for their body, change in shape over time, or can fit into a variety of bands and cups depending on brand. It’s difficult to judge the accuracy of any relationship to size, given all of these variables. (I also wondered if sizes options offered went from AAA to DD or up to K .) Even the press release from 23andme announcing the publication of their investigation did not state that (a) they had found the gene for breast size; or (b) larger breasts are at greater risk of developing breast cancer. These genes may exist, but 23andme cautions that more research must be conducted.
The National Health Service examined the facts behind this story and concluded: Breast cancer is a complex condition that is linked with multiple risk factors, such as age, obesity and estrogen levels. It is unclear how these factors interact, and what role the genetic variations identified in this study may play in the development of breast cancer.
This study does not support headlines claiming that women with larger breasts have a higher risk of breast cancer. It can only tell us that some of the genes associated with breast size are also associated with breast cancer. It does not tell us whether these genetic variations translate into increased rates of the condition among women with large breasts.
For more info on breast and other health news, you can subscribe to “behind the headlines” at the NHS website. Bra and breast size matters, but not as much as some would like us to think.