United States Department of Veterans Affairs
 Health Care
VA Mammography Program Gives Women a Chance to Beat Breast Cancer
woman and radiology machine
Linda Carpinello-Dillenbeck is the Lead Mammographer at the Albany VA Medical Center.
Photo courtesy of Albany VA Medical Center

“The beauty about breast cancer, if you want to say that there’s beauty in ugliness, is that it’s very slow growing.”

Dana Sullivan, Assistant Director of the National Radiology Program and Diagnostic Services at VA, explained that a mammogram can detect pinhead-sized pre-cancerous growths, giving doctors more choices and more time to find the least-invasive treatment option. “A woman no longer has to be disfigured, as long as she gets those mammograms.”

VA recommends that women get a mammogram every two years after they reach age 50. With one in nine women being diagnosed with breast cancer, screening is an important preventive measure for every woman to take.

However, the knowledge that screening may save your life (or your breasts) doesn’t make the procedure any less intimidating.

“Every woman walks in believing that we are going to find breast cancer,” Sullivan said. “And I don’t think that any woman leaving the office sleeps well until they get the result.

“Unfortunately, it’s the type of exam where the radiologist has to sit down and study; compare it to your baseline mammogram.”

Reading a mammogram is a very specialized skill, requiring additional training and certification that must be maintained by a continuum of experience. A radiologist has to read at least 560 mammograms per year and a technologist has to perform at least 250.

Across the country, 32 VA Medical Centers offer women Veterans in-house access to accredited, digital mammography programs.

men and women wearing pink clothes and holding a blue banner
Albany VA Medical Center goes pink for Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Photo courtesy of Albany VA Medical Center

Rising demand

Women currently make up about 15% of active duty service personnel, which means that the number of women Veterans is on the rise. VA expects a 5% rise in the next 5-10 years.

Currently, the average age among women Veterans is about 40 years old — within the prescribed age range for a women’s first mammogram.

More and more Veterans are reaching an age where they are eligible for this free screening. Unfortunately, it is not the only awareness challenge, according to Peter Potter, Public Affairs Officer at the Albany VA Medical Center.

“There are women out there who don’t even really see themselves as Veterans,” said Potter. “They’ve served our country honorably but, as many of our younger Veterans often do, they equate being a Veteran with combat service, or a specific gender, even as a reference to an older generation. They don’t realize that they, in fact, are Veterans and that the appropriate care is there for them as well.”

He explained that the medical center concentrates on “getting out there in front, providing Veterans and the community information about the care and benefits available at VA, letting these women know that there are services available at VA specifically for them and they deserve it!”

Outreach efforts range from information booths at community events, events sponsored at the medical center, focus and volunteer groups, community partnerships, even posters around medical center facilities to draw the attention of Veterans visiting the medical center for a routine checkup. In the health care field, however, a recommendation is the best publicity.

“Women trust word of mouth referrals,” said Linda Carpinello-Dillenbeck, lead mammographer at the Albany VA Medical Center. She sees approximately 1,400 women Veterans a year, serving a much larger community than the 200 patients Carpinello-Dillenbeck saw in her first year with the VA in 1992.

Those referred who are not Veterans can still receive life-saving mammography screenings thanks to a local VA partnership with the American Cancer Society.

VA care for the rest of the community

The American Cancer Society operates through the New York State Cancer Services Program to offer free cancer screenings to low-income, uninsured or under-insured women. As a result, VA is able to expand care to the wives and family member of Veterans.

“There are many spouses of Veterans who are without service, particularly the wives of Vietnam Veterans,” Carpinello-Dillenbeck explained, these women care for their disabled spouse but don’t qualify for VA benefits. “So, we’re saving a caregiver to a Veteran.”

The 16-year partnership has built bonds among the Veterans and throughout the community, so Breast Cancer Awareness Month brings hope for a cure, not anxiety over medical bills.

Scheduled between Veteran’s appointments, the mammography team at Albany sees between 30 and 40 Cancer Service patients each year. The $300 procedure is free of charge to the patient and the hospital receives reimbursement of $87.58 per screening. Follow-up mammograms and cancer treatment is also covered by the program.

Access to regular mammograms means the one in 10 women diagnosed with breast cancer will survive.

“It is highly treatable,” said Sullivan. “We catch it early; we treat it early; women no longer have to be maimed or die of breast cancer.”

Related links:
  Mammography Services at Albany VAMC
  New York State Cancer Services