Don't let fear stop you from getting a breast cancer screening

Kaylah Jackson
September 28, 2018 - 3:40 pm

ID 54374381 © Carolyn Franks |


At the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center in Houston, Texas, women veterans wear pink, comfortable, fluffy robes and enjoy drinks and snacks to make them comfortable.

That’s the type of environment the Breast Imaging team in Texas and other VA centers create for women veterans. But even with a fluffy pink robe, many women aren’t educated about what steps to take regarding their breast health. The best place to start is getting an accurate screening.

“Research, in general, has found that mammography is the number one way of saving a woman’s life from dying from breast cancer,” said Dr. Mahdieh Parezi, Chief of the Breast Imaging Section at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center in Houston, Texas. “Since the 1980s and 1990s when more women started getting a mammogram, we started seeing a decrease nationally in the number of women dying from breast cancer by about 40 percent.”

A mammogram is an x-ray picture of the breast that doctors can use to detect early signs of breast cancer, but the fear itself of the mammogram results will sometimes prevent women from getting a screening.

And myths about breast cancer don’t just stop the possibility of test results. Dr. Parezi says there are a few obstacles that often prevent women from paying attention to breast health.

“75 percent of breast cancers that occur across the nation are in women who have no family history of breast cancer, and that’s because the number one risk factor for breast cancer is gender—just being a woman,” said Dr. Parezi.

Starting annual mammograms at age 40 is recommended by American College of Radiology and whether or not women think they have it, the exam should be part of their annual care routine, especially if a woman has a family history of breast cancer.

Read Also: MVP needs women vets for new cancer screening.

For many women, conducting a self-exam is sometimes thought of as an alternative measure, but self-checks are only one part of overall breast health.

“More recently many physicians don’t think there is a benefit to getting a self-breast exam or having a clinical exam, where the physician does the exam on the patient,” said Dr. Parezi. But she does say this three-pronged approach should be used when thinking about over breast health for woman veterans.

  1. Annual Mammogram.
  2. Being aware of your body.
  3. Have a clinical breast exam by your clinician.

The number two risk factor after gender for breast cancer is getting older. Although gender and aging are risk factors woman veterans cannot change, there are methods they can take towards all-around health. Moderating exercise, reducing the amount of alcohol intake and having a healthy BMI are great preventative measures to integrate within a woman's routine.

For woman veterans who have breast cancer, keeping consistent face-to-face communication with your physician and team is important. Joining a local support group can also be helpful, check if your local VA center has one for breast cancer patients.

At the VA clinic in Houston, for example, patients have the option of going to a support group to talk to each other and ask questions in a space that’s led by an oncology social worker and oncology psychologist.

Recently, the VA created a Breast Cancer Registry that includes data from multiple sources within the VA to offer patients the best information about breast cancer screening, test results, and treatment options

“Across many of the VAs', as care is being more focused on woman veterans, we’re trying to provide the kind of care that’s top-notch where we can compete with the private sector so that veterans come to us not because they have to, but because they want to.”

For more information about Breast Cancer resources at the VA, click here.

To learn about the different stages of Breast Cancer and what breast changes look like, click here to check out the Veterans Health Library.

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