Beyond the Battlefield: The Silent Fight Against Breast Cancer for Female Veterans

Key Takeaways

Deployment may increase breast cancer risk.
Age, family history, and deployment exposures heighten risk.
Early detection via mammograms increases treatment success.
Brief discomfort, but crucial for optimal imaging.
Healthy habits can reduce cancer risk.
Report breast changes immediately.
SERVICE Act ensures screenings for high-risk veterans.
VA offers state-of-the-art breast cancer care.

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Beyond the Battlefield: The Silent Fight Against Breast Cancer for Female Veterans

Key Takeaways

Deployment may increase breast cancer risk.
Age, family history, and deployment exposures heighten risk.
Early detection via mammograms increases treatment success.
Brief discomfort, but crucial for optimal imaging.
Healthy habits can reduce cancer risk.
Report breast changes immediately.
SERVICE Act ensures screenings for high-risk veterans.
VA offers state-of-the-art breast cancer care.

In honor of breast cancer awareness month, we want to explore further into one of the most pervasive health issues facing women today. In particular, we want to discuss how this diagnosis affects female veterans who may have been exposed to toxic chemicals and environments while deployed. While breast cancer poses a significant health concern for women in any demographic - 1 in 8 women develop breast cancer during their lifetime - this diagnosis can feel even more unsettling for female veterans, some of whom worry that toxic exposure may have increased their risk of developing this condition.

This article provides an overview of breast cancer risk factors, VA's new screening initiatives, what to watch for, and how to reduce your chances of a breast cancer diagnosis. As a female veteran, arming yourself with knowledge is key to obtaining the preventative screening you deserve - and catching any cancers early at their most treatable stage.

Evaluating Your Risk Factors - Toxic Exposure, Family History & More

A VA provider can conduct a personalized risk assessment based on your unique profile and history. Higher risk factors include:

Age - risk increases as you get older.

Family History - having close relatives diagnosed with breast cancer raises your risk.

Reproductive History - early period onset, not having children, late pregnancy, and pregnancy complications increase risk.

Breast Density - very dense breast tissue makes mammogram detection harder and is linked to higher risk.

Previous Breast Issues - prior biopsies, radiation exposure, or a breast cancer diagnosis means increased chance of reoccurrence.

Toxic Exposure During Deployment - more research is needed, but chemicals and airborne hazards may contribute to breast cancer risk in some populations.

While deployment itself has not been directly linked to greater breast cancer prevalence, veterans with extensive exposure to burn pits or other toxins have reasonable cause for concern. The VA is working to study connections and expand screening access for these at-risk service members.

The Screening Process: What to Expect

If your provider determines breast cancer screening is warranted based on your risk profile, they will coordinate a referral for a mammogram. This painless x-ray produces detailed images that allow radiologists to look for early signs of tumors or abnormal changes. These screening mammograms are the best tool for detecting cancer before symptoms arise - and the earlier your cancer is caught, the more likely treatment will be successful. For average-risk women over 40, yearly mammograms are standard. Based on your risk factors, your VA provider may recommend starting sooner or screening more frequently.

During the scan, a technician will position your breasts between two plastic plates to flatten them for optimal imaging. You may find the compression uncomfortable for a few seconds, but it does not harm breast tissue. Let the technician know if you have any mobility limitations or sensitivities that require accommodation. Remember to listen to your body after the scan. Some women experience temporary tenderness for a day or two. Spotting or bruising can also occur. However, significant pain, lumps, swelling, or skin changes after a mammogram warrant promptly informing your provider.

Reducing Your Breast Cancer Risk

While screening is crucial for early diagnosis, certain lifestyle habits also impact breast cancer likelihood. Steps like exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight, limiting alcohol intake, and managing stress can help lower your risk. Building these habits significantly reduces the odds of developing many illnesses, including cancer.
Your VA provider can offer guidance on implementing a healthy, cancer-defying lifestyle tailored to your needs. Even small changes make a difference! Building a support network to help you stay motivated also improves your chances of success, so don't be afraid to recruit family or friends!

Stay Vigilant for Symptoms of Breast Cancer

While the VA no longer advises regular self-exams as a standalone screening method, staying alert to breast changes remains important. Always inform your provider if you notice a lump, nipple discharge, skin changes, sudden breast swelling, or unexplained pain. Catching concerning symptoms quickly, even between mammograms, saves lives.
Err on the side of caution and report anything unusual to your VA care team right away. They can determine if diagnostic testing is warranted. Remember, early detection when cancer is small and localized vastly improves outcomes.

Look Into Expanded VA Screening for At-Risk Veterans

Many female veterans worry that exposure to burn pits or toxins during deployment may have increased their breast cancer risk. Recognizing these valid concerns, the VA has launched new initiatives to enhance access to breast cancer screening for veterans who served in high-risk areas when these hazardous exposures were present.
The SERVICE Act, signed into law in June 2022 and championed by Marine veteran and stage-4 breast cancer survivor Dr. Kate Hendricks Thomas, now mandates breast cancer risk assessments and free mammogram screening for veterans stationed in these locations for specified periods:

Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar from 1990-1991 and 2003 until burn pit closure

Afghanistan, Djibouti, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen from 9/11 until burn pit closure

This legislation ensures at-risk veterans receive potentially life-saving preventative screening regardless of VA enrollment status or ability to pay. Even if you did not serve in the locations covered under the SERVICE Act, we advise discussing any toxic exposure history and breast cancer concerns with your VA provider, as they can help determine appropriate risk reduction steps and provide screening recommendations based on your unique deployment experiences and health profile.

If You're Dealing with Breast Cancer, the VA Offers World-Class Treatment

If breast cancer is unfortunately diagnosed, take comfort knowing the VA offers top-of-the-line treatment through:

Cutting-edge oncology centers

Mastectomy and breast reconstruction surgery

Chemotherapy, radiation, hormonal and targeted therapies

Integrative medicine for mind-body wellness

Access to groundbreaking clinical trials

Mental health support services

VA care teams skillfully guide patients through every aspect of the cancer journey with compassion. Their expertise delivers hope, healing, and the knowledge that you are not alone.

Take Control of Your Health

As a female veteran, prioritizing breast health through education, risk reduction, and screening gives you control over your wellbeing. Knowledge is power - arm yourself with an understanding of breast cancer risks and how to minimize them, take advantage of the VA's expanded screening access for at-risk Veterans, and partner closely with your VA provider to catch any issues early.

Frequently Asked Questions

Toxic exposure refers to the contact with harmful substances, many of which have been linked to increased cancer risks. For female veterans, certain service-related exposures, such as the burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, exposure to jet fuel, and other chemicals, may elevate the risk of developing breast cancer. Some toxicants can act as endocrine disruptors, imitating or interfering with the natural hormones in the body, which can promote the growth of breast cancer cells. Studies are ongoing, but it's evident that understanding and addressing toxic exposures is crucial for the well-being of our female veterans.

While general breast cancer risk factors apply to both civilians and veterans, female veterans face unique risk factors due to their military service:

 

  • Service-related toxic exposure: Deployments might have exposed veterans to chemicals like those from burn pits, jet fuel, and other hazardous substances that may increase breast cancer risk.
  • Stress of deployment: Chronic stress, common among deployed service members, may have an indirect impact on breast cancer risk by affecting immune function or hormone levels.
  • Age: As with the general population, the risk increases as one gets older.
  • Family history and genetics: A close relative with breast cancer or mutations in genes like BRCA1 and BRCA2 can elevate risk.
  • Radiation exposure during service: Some veterans might have had exposure to higher levels of radiation during their service, increasing their risk.
  • Late childbearing: Military service may delay childbearing, and having one's first child after age 30 can increase breast cancer risk.

Breast cancer screening typically involves:

  • Mammography: An X-ray of the breast that can detect tumors that might be too small to feel.
  • Clinical breast exam: A physical examination by a doctor or nurse, where they will check both breasts and lymph nodes in the underarm for any lumps or abnormalities.
  • Breast MRI or ultrasound: For those at high risk, these might be recommended in addition to mammograms.
  • Biopsy: If abnormalities are found, a small sample of the tissue may be removed and tested for cancer.

Regular screenings are vital as they can detect breast cancer early when it's more treatable.

Female veterans can take general preventive measures, but also steps that address their unique exposures:

  • Stay informed about service-related exposures: By understanding potential toxins they might have been exposed to during their service, female veterans can be more vigilant about screenings.
  • Seek support: Engage with VA programs or veterans' groups that can provide resources and information about breast cancer risks specific to female veterans.
  • Limit alcohol: Moderate drinking or abstaining can reduce risk.
  • Stay active: Physical activity not only helps lower breast cancer risk but can also alleviate some mental health challenges.
  • Maintain a healthy weight: Being overweight or obese can increase breast cancer risk, especially after menopause.
  • Utilize VA health screenings: The VA offers mammograms and other screenings. Early detection is key to effective treatment.
  • Limit hormone therapy: If used, discuss the benefits and risks with a VA healthcare provider.
  • Engage in post-deployment health assessments: These assessments can identify potential health concerns early on and direct veterans to appropriate care.

Some common symptoms of breast cancer include:

  • A lump in the breast or underarm.
  • Swelling, warmth, redness, or darkening of the breast.
  • Change in breast size or shape.
  • Dimpling or puckering of the skin.
  • Itchy, scaly, sore, or rash on the nipple.
  • Pulling in of the nipple or other parts of the breast.
  • Nipple discharge, especially if bloody.
    Pain in any part of the breast.

It's essential to remember that these symptoms can also be due to benign conditions. However, if you notice any of these changes, it's crucial to consult with a healthcare provider.

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