According to the American Cancer Society, breast cancer is the second most common cancer among American women and will affect one in every eight women in her lifetime. For many women, this means you’ve had your own experience with breast cancer, or you’ve shared in the experience of a close family member or friend.
Make sure you understand your risk for breast cancer and access the screenings, support and services you deserve.
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) understands how widespread the impact of breast cancer is and how important early detection and high-quality care can be to saving lives. The SERVICE Act, signed into law on June 7, 2022, expands VA’s breast cancer resources to include risk assessments and clinically appropriate mammograms to women Veterans who have experienced toxic exposure.
Learn more about the SERVICE Act and what it means for you, as well as important information on risk factors and the need for early detection.
The SERVICE Act and What It Means for You
The Dr. Kate Hendricks Thomas Supporting Expanded Review for Veterans in Combat Environment, or SERVICE Act, expands breast cancer screening eligibility for Veterans and ensures research continues to advance knowledge of toxic exposures and breast cancer.
Dr. Thomas was a Marine Corps Veteran who deployed to Iraq in 2005. While there, she was exposed daily to a burn pit on base, and in 2018, she was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer. She died on April 5, 2022. Although no direct link has been found between toxic exposure and breast cancer, VA is concerned about tragic cases like this and continues to support research and offer availability to important resources.
The SERVICE Act expands eligibility for clinically appropriate mammograms to Veterans of any age who deployed to certain locations, such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Saudi Arabia and more, who may have an elevated risk of breast cancer due to toxic exposure. Find a full list of the locations, as well as the specific time periods, included in the SERVICE Act.
This means Veterans under the age of 40, who were not previously included in VA’s mammography screening policy, may be eligible for breast cancer risk assessment and mammography screening if a risk for breast cancer is found.
How Can I Determine My Risk for Breast Cancer?
VA follows the screening guidelines used by the American Cancer Society for women who are at average risk for breast cancer, including:
- Women between 40-44 have the option to start screening with a mammogram every year.
- Women between 45-54 should get mammograms every year.
- Women 55 and older can switch to a mammogram every other year or continue with yearly mammograms.
However, there are some women who are at increased risk for developing breast cancer who may need to follow different guidelines. Risk factors include:
- A strong family history of breast cancer
- A personal history of breast cancer
- A genetic mutation known to increase risk of breast cancer, such as the BRCA gene
- Chest radiation therapy before the age of 30
- Dense breasts
- Use of alcohol
Your age, race and weight can also impact your risk, so be sure to have a discussion with your health care provider about your individual risk level.
Toxic exposure, such as exposure to burn pits, could be another risk factor, although research has not yet shown it to increase risk. If you served in one of the locations and time periods listed in the SERVICE Act, reach out to your health care provider to discuss your risk level. VA experts will complete a risk assessment that considers your toxic exposures, family medical history and other risk factors to determine if you should have a mammogram.
What Are My Next Steps?
After you understand your individual risk level, you and your health care provider can determine the best steps to take, which may include a breast cancer screening. Getting regular mammograms is the most reliable way to find breast cancer early when it’s easiest to treat successfully.
A mammogram is a low-dose x-ray picture of the breast that can find breast cancer early on, before it’s big enough to feel or cause symptoms (like a lump).
- VA offers several resources to provide women Veterans with the tools and services they need to be proactive in their own health care journey, including:
- VA’s Women Veterans Health Care page offers a wide range of information on women’s health issues, as well as available health services and resources you may have earned as a woman Veteran.
- A handout filled with information related to the SERVICE Act includes important details about the SERVICE Act and answers different questions Veterans may have. The handout also includes an easy to follow graphic on how to determine your personal risk level and what your next steps should be.
- VA’s Breast Care resources include breast ultrasounds and MRI, breast biopsy and surgery, genetic counseling and testing, cancer diagnosis and treatment, and more.
- VA’s enrollment application for health benefits, including information on eligibility requirements can help you get started if you aren’t currently enrolled in VA health care.
- The Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics, or PACT Act, authorizes VA to provide care and benefits to millions of toxic-exposed Veterans and their survivors. Contact your primary care provider to learn more or visit the VA’s information on the PACT Act. Breast cancer is considered a presumptive condition under the PACT Act.
- The American Cancer Society has a lot of information and resources on breast cancer, including learning more about risk and prevention, understanding your diagnosis and treatment options, and living as a breast cancer survivor.
- The CDC provides additional breast cancer awareness information such as a detailed list of risk factors, ways to reduce your risk and much more. The CDC also shares helpful resources, such as how to get a free or low-cost mammogram through their early detection program.
Now, more than ever, VA is making it possible to get the care you deserve. Make sure you understand your risk for breast cancer and access the screenings, support and services you deserve.