The Mighty Logo

What Women Veterans Should Know About the Heightened Risk for Breast Cancer

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Veterans, by nature of their military experience and some toxic exposures in service, are often at greater risk for developing certain diseases. These include breast cancer, which strikes women veterans at a significantly higher rate than women who did not serve in uniform — perhaps by as much as 40%, according to a 2009 study at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

And while breast cancer remains a small fraction of the roughly 40,000 cancer cases reported each year by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) the rapidly growing population of women veterans means that number is likely to rise.

For example, following a deployment to Iraq in 2007, Air Force veteran Dr. T. Danielle Russell was diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer, which then spread to her lungs. Her claim for service connection was initially denied by the VA, but a Disabled American Veterans (DAV) benefits expert was able to successfully establish a link between Russell’s illness and at least two in-service exposures known to cause breast cancer — thereby securing her necessary medical care and associated veterans benefits.

For those women considered at average risk for the disease (those who do not have a personal or family history of the cancer, do not carry a genetic mutation known to increase risk of developing it and/or have not had chest radiation therapy prior to age 30), the American Cancer Society recommends optional annual screening for ages 40 through 44, yearly exams for those 45 through 54 and every other year for those over 55.

For women veterans — especially given the potential for enhanced risk due to exposure to things like industrial chemicals, burn pit emissions, certain vaccinations and even food and water contaminated by overheated plastic containers — it is critically important to follow the recommended mammography guidelines. But for younger patients like Russell, self and clinical exams are a key to early detection.

The VA has performed well in this area by ensuring that 85%  of its patients receive the recommended breast cancer screenings, in contrast to 68% of non-VA providers. The VA also provides mini-residencies for clinicians at VA medical facilities across the country to ensure they are adequately trained to identify potential abnormalities in breast tissue.

We still need to be sure all women veterans are aware of the increased risks and receive proper examinations, and those who have already developed a potentially service-connected illness get timely access to health care and benefits. Here are some tips to help you:

  • If you are already a VA patient, be sure to talk to your provider about your health history and risk for developing breast cancer. A screening should be part of your routine health checkup, but if not, ask your provider to conduct a thorough exam.
  • If you are not a VA patient, but have developed breast cancer or any other illness or injury you feel may be related to your military service, contact your nearest DAV claims expert. DAV representatives will help you get the benefits and services you need at absolutely no cost. Find the nearest office at
  • Under the Combat Veteran Authority, any veteran who served in a combat theater anytime after Nov. 11, 1998, and was discharged from active duty on or after Jan. 28, 2003, is eligible for up to five years of VA health care following military service. You can contact an on-base DAV claims expert for free assistance by visiting, or calling the VA Health Benefits Call Center toll free at 877-222-VETS for more information.

To all women veterans, we appreciate your service to this nation. Please join me in honoring that service by making your health a top priority and getting the necessary health screenings. We hope you will share this information with other woman veterans and encourage them to get a checkup.

Women are a growing and valuable part of our military and veteran communities, and DAV wants to ensure they are healthy and able to lead fulfilling lives well into the future.

Photo credit: Jupiterimages/Getty Images

Originally published: July 10, 2019
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home