Younger women veterans who served near burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan are being encouraged to get free breast cancer screenings from Veterans Affairs physicians in an effort to identify serious health issues as soon as possible.

Veterans Affairs officials announced plans to make breast cancer risk assessments and some mammograms free for women veterans 40 and younger who served in combat areas where burn pits and other toxins were present. The services are already free for women older than 40.

“We at VA are expanding breast cancer screenings for toxic-exposed veterans because early detection saves lives,” said VA Secretary Denis McDonough in a statement. “This is an important step toward making sure that breast cancer is diagnosed early, treated early, and — hopefully — sent into remission early.”

The move was mandated under the Dr. Kate Hendricks Thomas SERVICE Act, passed into law by Congress in June 2022. Thomas was a Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq and contracted breast cancer from her exposure to toxic burn pit smoke there. She died at age 42, two months before the bill was passed.

Breast cancer is already a presumptive condition under the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act (better known as the PACT Act), signed into law one year ago. Individuals who served in areas using military burn pits who later contract the cancer can apply for expedited disability benefits without having to first prove a connection to their military service.

The deadline to apply for retroactive PACT Act benefits is Aug. 9. Individuals who file a disability claim before then may be eligible for payouts dating back to Aug. 10, 2022. Those who file after that date will only be eligible for payouts starting from the day they file.

The expansion covers veterans who served in Iraq from 1990 to 1991 and from 2003 until the “VA determines burn pits were no longer used” there (a date VA has not yet established); in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Qatar from August 1990 until the same yet-to-be-determined date; and in Afghanistan, Djibouti, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, and Yemen starting in September 2001.

Individuals who served in other areas noted in the department’s Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry may also be eligible for the expanded screening options.

The breast cancer screenings include a series of questions about a patients’ military toxic exposure history, their family medical history, and other potential health risk factors. In cases where concerns are raised, a mammogram may be recommended for additional medical care.

Eligible veterans interested in the breast cancer screenings can request one through their VA care provider or reach out to local VA medical centers for availability.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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