Breast cancer screening is available to all women veterans, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Metro Creative graphic

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says there is no direct link between toxic exposure during service deployments and breast cancer, but acknowledges concern and encourages screenings while risk studies continue.

The Service Act of 2022 offers breast cancer screenings to all women veterans even if they aren’t enrolled in the VA health care program.

“The recently installed Service Act provides a comprehensive risk assessment for all women veterans whether or not they are enrolled in the VA,” said Kim Bizub, assistant women’s veteran program manager at VA Butler Healthcare.

The VA is promoting preventive screenings, including mammograms and risk assessment, by distributing flyers and handouts that outline the Service Act and explain breast cancer screening and risk factors.

“No evidence shows deployment increases the risk of breast cancer, but we acknowledge the risk and offer assessment,” said Samantha Carlantonio, nurse practitioner and women’s health provider at Butler VA Healthcare in Butler Township.

The VA women’s veteran program includes a women’ health adviser, education, support and empowerment, Bizub said.

The program includes treatment, mastectomy bras, prosthetics, mental health services, nutrition services and primary care. Through a multi-discipline team, the program is designed to tend to the “mind, body and spirit,” of veterans, Bizub said.

Most of the 2,000 women enrolled in the health care program at VA Butler Healthcare take advance of preventive screenings, she said.

Gender-specific care for women veterans including comprehensive breast cancer risk assessments is available at VA Butler Healthcare and at the health care system’s community-based outpatient clinics in Cranberry Township and Armstrong, Mercer, Lawrence and Clarion counties. Carlantonio said she travels to each of those facilities to provide care.

The information the VA distributes to women veterans says women with localized breast cancer have a 99% survival rate with early detection, and about 700 women enrolled in the VA are diagnosed with breast cancer each year.

Women ages 45 to 54 should be screened annually, and women 55 and older should be screened every other year. Beginning at age 40, women should have the opportunity to begin annual screening, according to the VA.

Overall, one out of every eight women will develop breast cancer, which is the second most common type of cancer and second leading cause of cancer death among women. Black women are more likely to die from breast cancer than women of other races and ethnicities.

The Service Act and the Honoring Our PACT Act, which also was signed into law last year, focus on the health effects of toxic exposures.

The PACT Act expands and extends eligibility for VA health care for veterans with toxic exposures and certain veterans of the Vietnam, Gulf War and post-9/11 eras.

The Service Act ensures that VA policy allows veterans deployed to certain locations during certain periods of time to be eligible for a breast cancer risk assessment and mammography screening for breast cancer if a risk is found.

While no direct link has been found between toxic exposure and breast cancer, VA is concerned about individual reports and is continuing studies to find out if toxic exposure may be a cause of breast cancer.

The VA does not recommend mammogram screenings for women younger than 30 because they are not generally useful for that age group, especially if no other risk factors exist.

For female veterans between ages 30 and 39 who meet Service Act guidelines, the VA recommends a clinical risk review that looks at toxic exposure, family medical history, and other risk factors to determine if a mammogram is needed.

Women veterans who have an average risk of developing breast cancer, but aren’t covered by the Service Act, should start mammogram screenings when they reach 40 or 45 years old, according to the VA.

Common risk factors include a person’s age, race, weight and use of alcohol. Other risk factors for women include medical history such as the age of puberty, age of first pregnancy, not having a full-term pregnancy, use of certain medications and breast characteristics such as density.