Female Veterans and Breast Cancer
Female Veterans and Breast Cancer: Understanding The Risk Factors
Although Breast Cancer Awareness Month officially falls during the month of October, public health professionals are on an ongoing mission to educate military-connected women about the rising rates of breast cancer in veterans. Specifically, research shows a correlation between toxic exposures and post-service health outcomes: according to a study conducted at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, military personnel were found to be nearly 40% more likely to develop breast cancer than non-military people.
With such staggering statistics, there is an increasing need for health care services for women veterans, including but not limited to cancer resources and health insurance, access to care, and clinical trials. While there have been breast cancer diagnoses among both male and female veterans, the majority of the cases have been identified in women who have served in the military. Consequently, these diagnoses have raised many questions for servicewomen – particularly for those who may be at high risk. But what exactly are the risk factors for military personnel developing breast cancer?
Breast Cancer & Vets: Personal Risk Factors Among Servicewomen
There are many facets to consider when navigating the questions that go along with breast cancer. In general, a woman’s risk for developing breast cancer depends on several factors, including her genetics, lifestyle, her family’s health history, and so on. However, in the case of women veterans, there are additional environmental catalysts that may weigh into the equation. For example, according to panelist Joy Ilem, National Legislative Director of DAV (Disabled American Veterans), there are numerous types of toxic exposures that servicewomen may have experienced, including:
- Burn pits – this refers to any number of airborne toxins emitted from items such as chemical solvents, burned plastics, medical/human waste products, petroleum etc.
- Water contamination
- Depleted Uranium
Furthermore, the density of a woman’s breast tissue must also be taken into account. In fact, high breast density has been shown to be a common risk factor for developing cancer. Due to the density of the tissue itself, women who have dense (versus fatty) breasts typically require a secondary screening – such as an ultrasound – to gain a more detailed view of the breast tissue, and ultimately help to identify potentially hidden and/or invasive cancers. No matter what type of risk levels or breast types, the best defense against breast cancer is early detection via mammograms.
military personnel were found to be nearly 40% more likely to develop breast cancer than non-military people.
Looking Ahead: Breast Health Care Services For Military Women
With a growing awareness of the disease and a push for legislative support, strives continue to be made towards breast cancer support amongst the population of women who serve. According to MOAA President and CEO Lt. Gen. Dana T. Atkins, The Making Advances in Mammography and Medical Options (MAMMO) for Veterans Act “goes a long way in providing the necessary structure and oversight for improving and modernizing breast imaging services across VA’s health care system.” Atkins added, “With the incidence rates of breast and other cancers being significantly higher in the military population across race and gender, the timing of this legislation is critical to the long-term health and well-being of those who serve and have served in uniform.”
If you or a loved one serving in the military has been diagnosed with breast cancer, there are numerous resources available. As announced in 2020 on their site, the Department of Veterans Affairs has launched a strategic partnership with Duke University and Baylor College of Medicine toward building VA’s National Women Veterans Oncology System of Excellence, integrating the best of private and public sectors to serve patients. All VA medical centers have a Women Veterans Program Manager to help women Veterans access VA benefits and health care services. To find a VA medical center nearest you, call 1-877-222-8387 or visit https://www.va.gov/find-locations/ for additional information.