Weekly Columns

Last Congress we made significant progress to expand Department of Veterans (VA) care and services for women with the passage of the landmark Deborah Sampson Act. This was a critical first step that we must continue to build on in order to uphold the promise we made to women who served in our nation’s uniform. 

The VA must have the necessary tools and resources to address the needs of this growing population. By 2043, the VA estimates women will account for 16 percent of all veterans. As more women volunteer for military service there is a greater demand to develop and implement policies that address health challenges unique to women veterans. It’s especially important because of the increased risk of breast cancer for those who served in areas with higher chances of exposure to toxic chemicals. 

The incidence of breast cancer in women veterans and military populations is estimated to be up to 40 percent higher than the general population according to a study on cancer occurrence at Walter Reed Medical Center. Given the dangerous environments in which military members serve and additional risk factors associated with these locations, the VA must update its policies for administering mammograms. 

Early detection is crucial to preventing and treating breast cancer. That’s why I joined Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) to introduce legislation expanding VA’s mammogram screening eligibility. The Supporting Expanded Review for Veterans in Combat Environments (SERVICE) Act will broaden access to mammography services for women veterans, requiring the VA to conduct mammograms for all women who served in areas associated with burn pits and other toxic exposures regardless of age, symptoms or family history. 

This legislation is personal for women such as U.S. Marine Corps veteran Dr. Kate Hendricks Thomas. In 2018, she was unaware of her elevated risk for breast cancer as a result of her deployment. During a routine medical exam she was advised to have a mammogram and at age 38 was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer.

“I could have used that information much earlier than I acquired it. We should be telling military women these things and arranging the standard of care for preventive medicine around these increased odds ratios. Put simply, I needed that mammogram sooner,” Dr. Thomas wrote in testimony submitted to the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs in support of the SERVICE Act.  

We need reliable and updated data to show how pervasive breast cancer is among women veterans. This will allow us to allocate appropriate resources to the VA for this fight. The SERVICE Act directs the VA to submit a report to Congress within two years of enactment that compares the rates of breast cancer among members of the Armed Forces and the civilian population. This data will help us implement advanced procedures to better treat breast cancer patients.  

Dr. Thomas has been a tenacious advocate for spreading awareness of the increased risk of breast cancer. We owe it to her and all veterans to provide the preventative care necessary to live long and healthy lives.