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WASHINGTON — The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee advanced legislation Wednesday to require the Department of Veterans Affairs to begin conducting mammograms at younger ages for female veterans.

The Supporting Expanded Review for Veterans in Combat Environments bill, introduced by Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., would extend access to mammograms for all female veterans who served in areas with burn pits or other toxic exposures, regardless of their age, symptoms or family history.

According to a report from the National Institutes of Health, female veterans and female military personnel are estimated to be 40% more likely to develop breast cancer than the general female population.

VA guidance now allows women to start yearly screenings for mammograms at age 40 at the earliest. The department encourages all women between ages 50 and 75 to undergo a mammogram once every two years — a policy that advocates contend is “outdated” given the potential linkage between breast cancer and toxic exposures.

“Early detection and treatment for those individuals who may have a higher risk of developing breast cancer because of where they served is key to fighting this disease,” Boozman said in a statement. 

Kate Hendricks Thomas, a Marine veteran and a public health professional, shared her written testimony with the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee before they considered the bill. At age 25 in 2005, Thomas served in Iraq and was near multiple burn pits in Anbar province.

In 2018 when she was 38, Thomas went to a routine health care appointment at her local VA, and her doctor encouraged her to get a mammogram. Following the mammogram, she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer.

Thomas has no family history of the disease and believes it's related to her burn pit exposure.

“My watch as a Marine is over, but I still feel a tremendous responsibility to the community I call home,” Thomas wrote in her testimony to senators. “We need to raise awareness about toxic exposures so that other women veterans know their risks and push for early screenings.”

Boozman’s bill was one of 13 pieces of legislation advanced by the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Wednesday. The bills still must get approved by the full Senate and House before becoming law.

Reps. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, R-Calif., and Julia Brownley, D-Calif., introduced a companion bill last week in the House.

Click here to read the Stars and Stripes story published July 28, 2021.