Understanding Your Mammogram - Women Veterans Health Care
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Understanding Your Mammogram

Mammograms: When, Where, and What They Mean

VA recently adopted the American Cancer Society’s (ACS) breast cancer screening guidelines. This alignment advances VA’s commitment to serving the unique needs of women Veterans. Currently, 76 percent of women Veterans age 40-49 receive mammograms through VA. VA recognizes the importance of expanding access to onsite mammograms, ensuring Veterans receive age-appropriate breast cancer screenings, and using state-of-the-art information technology to meet the growing needs of women Veterans.

VA’s New Breast Cancer Screening Guidelines

VA recommends all women begin getting yearly mammograms by age 45, and every other year beginning at age 55. Women may also choose to start screening with yearly mammograms as early as age 40. If there is concern for risk factors, such as certain genetic mutations or a family history of breast cancer, talk to a provider about being tested earlier and more often. VA recommends that you take the actions below, once you have reached these age milestones:

At age 40: Talk with your doctor about the right time to begin screening;

By age 45: Begin yearly mammograms;

At age 55: Get mammograms every other year, or continue with annual mammography, depending on your preferences;

At age 75+: Continue getting regular mammograms if you’re in good health.

The latest guideline applies to women at average risk (no known risk factors) for breast cancer.

Increased Access to Breast Screening

VA has expanded access to onsite mammograms by 62 percent since 2010, which is an outcome of the focus on improving access to breast screening and coordination of care. Additionally, some facilities offer mammograms to walk-in patients and same-day ultrasounds. All eligible women Veterans have access to mammograms either on-site or through care in the community.

VA has increased access to breast screening by establishing a state-of-the-art information technology Breast Cancer Registry (BCR). The BCR integrates patient data to provide comprehensive, patient-specific information about breast cancer screening, test results, past and current breast cancer treatment, and population surveillance of breast care (both in the community and within VA).

VA’s performance measurements show that women Veterans are much more likely to receive age-appropriate breast cancer screenings than women in private-sector health care. In 2015, VA screened 86 percent of its women Veteran patients aged 50-74, compared with the private sector at 73 percent.

Understand your Mammogram

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a perfect time to remind women Veterans about the importance of mammograms and early detection. But once you get a mammogram, what do the results tell you?

VA uses Breast Imaging Reporting and Data System (BI-RADS) to provide understandable information. BI-RADs sorts the results into categories numbered 0 through 6.  These categories create a consistent way for doctors to describe what they find on a mammogram. This makes it much easier for doctors to accurately inform patients about test results and appropriate next steps.

“When it comes to Women Veterans care, we want them to be in control of it every day and in every way.”

-- Dr. Poonam Alaigh, Acting Under Secretary for Health

Mammograms can’t prove when an abnormal area is cancer, but they can help your provider decide whether more testing is needed.  The provider reading your mammogram will be looking for different types of breast changes, such as small white spots called calcifications, lumps or tumors called masses, and other suspicious areas that could be signs of cancer.  When possible, the provider reading your mammogram will compare it to your previous or past mammograms. This helps your provider find small changes that could be signs of cancer.  The American Cancer Society’s BI-RADS table can help you better understand the categories, your results, and guide a discussion with your VA provider.


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