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Screening High-Risk Women Veterans for Breast Cancer

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Background: Within the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), breast cancer prevalence has more than tripled from 1995 to 2012. Women veterans may be at an increased breast cancer risk based on service-related exposures and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Methods: Women veterans aged ≥ 35 years with no personal history of breast cancer were enrolled at 2 urban VA medical centers. We surveyed women veterans for 5-year and lifetime risks of invasive breast cancer using the Gail Breast Cancer Risk Assessment Tool (BCRAT). Data regarding demographics, PTSD status, eligibility for chemoprevention, and genetic counseling were also collected. Descriptive statistics were used to determine results.

Results: A total of 99 women veterans participated, of which 60% were Black. In total, 35% were high risk with a 5-year BCRAT > 1.66%. Breast biopsies had been performed in 22% of our entire population; 57% had a family history positive for breast cancer. Comparatively, in our high-risk Black population, 33% had breast biopsies and 94% had a family history. High-risk patients were referred for chemoprevention; 5 accepted and 13 were referred for genetic counseling. PTSD was present in 31% of the high-risk subgroup.

Conclusions: A high percentage of Black patients participated in this pilot study, which also showed an above average rate of PTSD among women veterans who are at high risk for developing breast cancer. Historically, breast cancer rates among Black women are lower than those found in the general population. High participation among Black women veterans in this pilot study uncovered the potential for further study of this population, which is otherwise underrepresented in research. Limitations included a small sample size, exclusively urban population, and self-selection for screening. Future directions include the evaluation of genetic and molecular mutations in high risk Black women veterans, possibly even a role for PTSD epigenetic changes.



The number of women seeking care from the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) is increasing.1 In 2015, there were 2 million women veterans in the United States, which is 9.4% of the total veteran population. This group is expected to increase at an average of about 18,000 women per year for the next 10 years.2 The percentage of women veterans who are US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) users aged 45 to 64 years rose 46% from 2000 to 2015.1,3-4 It is estimated that 15% of veterans who used VA services in 2020 were women.1 Nineteen percent of women veterans are Black.1 The median age of women veterans in 2015 was 50 years.5 Breast cancer is the leading cancer affecting female veterans, and data suggest they have an increased risk of breast cancer based on unique service-related exposures.1,6-9

In the US, about 10 million women are eligible for breast cancer preventive therapy, including, but not limited to, medications, surgery, or lifestyle changes.10 Secondary prevention options include change in surveillance that can reduce their risk or identify cancer at an earlier stage when treatment is more effective. The United States Preventive Services Task Force, the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, the American Society for Clinical Oncology, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, and the Oncology Nursing Society recommend screening women aged ≥ 35 years to assess breast cancer risk.11-18 If a woman is at increased risk, she may be a candidate for chemoprevention, prozphylactic surgery, and possibly an enhanced screening regimen.

Urban and minority women are an understudied population. Most veterans (75%) live in urban or suburban settings.19,20 Urban veteran women constitute an important potential study population.

Chemoprevention measures have been underused because of factors involving both women and their health care providers. A large proportion of women are unaware of their higher risk status due to lack of adequate screening and risk assessment.21,22 In addition to patient lack of awareness of their high-risk status, primary care physicians are also reluctant to prescribe chemopreventive agents due to a lack of comfort or familiarity with the risks and benefits.23-26 The STAR2015, BCPT2005, IBIS2014, MAP3 2011, IBIS-I 2014, and IBIS II 2014 studies clearly demonstrate a 49 to 62% reduction in risk for women using chemoprevention such as selective estrogen receptor modulators or aromatase inhibitors, respectively.27-32 Yet only 4 to 9% of high-risk women not enrolled in a clinical trial are using chemoprevention.33-39

The possibility of developing breast cancer also may be increased because of a positive family history or being a member of a family in which there is a known susceptibility gene mutation.40 Based on these risk factors, women may be eligible for tailored follow-up and genetic counseling.41-44

Nationally, 7 to 10% of the civilian US population will experience posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).45 The rates are remarkably higher for women veterans, with roughly 20% diagnosed with PTSD.46,47 Anxiety and PTSD have been implicated in poor adherence to medical advice.48,49

In 2014, a national VA multidisciplinary group focused on breast cancer prevention, detection, treatment, and research to address breast health in the growing population of women veterans. High-risk breast cancer screenings are not routinely carried out by the VA in primary care, women’s health, or oncology services. Furthermore, the recording of screening questionnaire results was not synchronized until a standard questionnaire was created and approved as a template by this group in the VA electronic medical record (EMR) in 2015.

Several prediction models can identify which women are at an increased risk of developing breast cancer. The most commonly used risk assessment model, the Gail breast cancer risk assessment tool (BCRAT), has been refined to include women of additional ethnicities (

This pilot project was launched to identify an effective manner to screen women veterans regarding their risk of developing breast cancer and refer them for chemoprevention education or genetic counseling as appropriate.


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