Detecting breast cancer earlier

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Bipartisan legislation would expand and improve breast cancer screening for women veterans

The number of breast cancer diagnoses among middle-aged women veterans enrolled in VA health care increased five times between 2000 and 2015, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Each year, about 700 VA patients receive that life-altering news. Now, two pieces of bipartisan legislation aim to expand access to mammography services and facilitate earlier detection of breast cancer.

Last summer, lawmakers introduced legislation in both the House and Senate to improve and expand mammography services for veterans enrolled in VA health care and to better screen women veterans potentially exposed to burn pits and other toxic exposures.

The Making Advances in Mammography and Medical Options (MAMMO) for Veterans Act (H.R. 4794, S. 2533) requires the VA to address “geographic disparities” in accessing breast imaging exams. The bill would require the department to carry out a pilot program to extend mammogram services to veterans living in areas where they are limited, such as more rural states. It would also require VA facilities to include 3D breast imaging and study access issues for disabled and paralyzed veterans.

“The best way we can fight breast cancer is with early detection and top-notch preventative care—plain and simple,” Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said in a July statement. “That’s why it’s critically important that we expand every veteran’s access to high-quality cancer screening and care, no matter where they live.”

Breast cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths among women, behind lung cancer, according to the VA. Roughly 1 in 8 women will develop invasive breast cancer in their lifetimes. But women who served in the military are 20% to 40% more likely to develop breast cancer than those who never served.

Rep. Julia Brownley of California, chairwoman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Health, was also a lead co-sponsor of H.R. 4571, the Supporting Expanded Review for Veterans In Combat Environments (SERVICE) Act. The bill would expand mammogram screening criteria to include women veterans who served in areas with burn pits, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, even if the women don’t meet current age recommendations, have symptoms or have a family history of breast cancer.

“The VA is uniquely positioned to be a leader in the fight against breast cancer,” added Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas, who helped introduce both the SERVICE Act (S. 2102) and the MAMMO Act in the Senate. “Upgrading the VA’s breast cancer imaging capability and expanding its services is key to prevention and treatment.”

As of publication, the SERVICE Act had passed in the Senate.

“Women veterans may be exposed to a variety of toxic and environmental hazards during military service that put them at risk for developing breast cancer, making early detection a critical component of their health care,” said National Legislative Director Joy Ilem. “Starting screenings sooner can help close the gaps between the time of exposure and development or progression of this disease, potentially saving lives.”

Find updates on this and other veterans legislation by joining DAV CAN (Commander’s Action Network) at DAVCAN.org.