Editor’s note: This article by Patricia Kime originally appeared on Military.com, a leading source of news for the military and veteran community.
The Department of Veterans Affairs has expanded eligibility for breast cancer screenings and mammograms for veterans exposed to burn pits regardless of their age and family history -- or even if they are not enrolled in VA health care.
The benefit, for veterans who served in specific areas overseas at specific times, is the result of legislation passed last year that honored a former Marine, Kate Hendricks Thomas, who died in April 2022 after a four-year battle with Stage 4 breast cancer.
Under the new protocol, eligible veterans will be assessed for breast cancer risk via a questionnaire that explores toxic exposures, family medical history and other potential risk factors to determine whether they should get a mammogram.
Previously, the VA followed American Cancer Society guidelines for breast cancer screenings, which recommend that mammograms begin at age 40.
The department will continue to do so for veterans not considered to be at higher risk.
But those eligible for the new screenings include all veterans who served in:
- Iraq from Aug. 2, 1990, to Feb. 28, 1991, and from March 19, 2003, onward -- until the VA determines that burn pits are no longer in use there.
- Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Qatar (but not Iraq), from Aug. 2, 1990, to a point when the VA determines burn pits aren't being used in those countries anymore.
- Afghanistan, Djibouti, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and Yemen from Sept. 11, 2001, and onward.
- And "other locations and time periods as determined by the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry," according to the VA.
A graduate of the University of Virginia, Kate Thomas served in the Marine Corps from 2002 to 2012, deploying to Fallujah, Iraq, in 2005. In 2018, during a primary care appointment at the VA, she was advised to get a baseline mammogram "based on where" she'd been stationed, she wrote in a blog post in 2021.
She discovered that her body was riddled with cancer, diagnosed with Stage 4 at age 38. The discovery launched a four-year battle to stay alive as long as possible for her husband and three-year old son, and a mission to raise awareness of the prevalence of breast cancer among military service women and veterans, as well as the dangers of burn pit exposure.
The incidence of breast cancer among younger female service members is 20% to 40% higher than civilian women their age, and active-duty women are seven times more likely to get breast cancer than any other cancers, according to Rajeev Samant, a pathologist and research scientist at the Birmingham, Alabama, VA Health Care System, who received grant funding to study aggressive types of breast cancer.
Thomas' story of her fight against cancer and her family's sacrifices to care for her are featured in the documentary Unconditional, now streaming on PBS and Amazon Prime.
Veterans interested in receiving a breast cancer risk assessment can contact their VA primary care provider or reach out to their local VA medical center.
Survival rates following early detection of breast cancer are 99%, according to the VA. Secretary Denis McDonough said that is the reason the VA is expanding screenings.
Aside from the law, that is.
"This is an important step toward making sure that breast cancer is diagnosed early, treated early, and -- hopefully -- sent into remission early," McDonough said in a statement Thursday.
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