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Military Service-Related Cancers

Military Service-Related Cancers

For those who have served in the military, the risk of certain health conditions, including specific cancers, can be significantly higher. The increased risk is mainly due to exposure to various environmental hazards during service. Understanding these risks, knowing the symptoms, and being aware of available support options is crucial for all veterans. This article aims to shed light on common military-related cancers, potential risk factors, and available resources for affected veterans.

Common Military-Related Cancers

Several types of cancer have been linked to military service. This is primarily due to the unique exposure risks servicemen and women face.

If you were diagnosed with cancer, exploring potential service connections is best. Since the PACT Act went into effect, the list of presumptive illnesses has expanded to include various types of cancer, opening benefits to those who were previously denied. Some of the most common military-related cancers include:

Lung Cancer

Military personnel are 25 percent more likely to receive a lung cancer diagnosis than the general population. Exposure to various carcinogens, such as chemicals, toxins, and environmental pollutants, is one of the primary reasons. For example, military personnel may encounter airborne contaminants during combat operations. This includes smoke from burning buildings, vehicles, or industrial facilities and asbestos exposure, among other things. 

Military personnel are exposed to many potentially dangerous substances and/or known to cause cancer. These include:

  • Agent Orange
  • Asbestos
  • CARC (chemical agent resistant coating) paint
  • Depleted uranium
  • Oil well fires
  • Low-level nerve agents at Iraqi facilities
  • Perchlorate (rocket fuel)
  • PCBs (Polychlorinated biphenyl)
  • Pesticides
  • Radiation from nuclear weapons testing
  • Sand, dust, particulates
  • Solvents trichloroethylene (TCE) and perchloroethylene (PCE)

Because there is an inherent health risk to military service, not only of physical injuries but also the development of chronic illnesses, veterans need to get regular checkups and advise their doctors of any strange and persistent symptoms. Symptoms of lung cancer often include:

  • persistent cough, 
  • shortness of breath, 
  • chest pain, 
  • and unexplained weight loss. 

Many symptoms are temporary and will resolve when there is no longer exposure. However, chronic symptoms may be a sign of a more serious condition. Veterans who worked in the following areas are encouraged to get tested for lung conditions:

  • Mining
  • Milling
  • Shipyards
  • Construction
  • Carpentry
  • Demolition (knocking down old buildings)

If you have any respiratory condition and were exposed to environmental hazards during service, you may be eligible for VA disability compensation. 

Skin Cancer (Melanoma)

Due to prolonged exposure to intense sunlight during deployments, veterans have a heightened risk of skin cancer, specifically melanoma. A study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found that U.S. military personnel are more likely to be diagnosed with melanoma than the general population. This heightened risk underscores the need for regular skin checks and sun protection measures, including sunscreens, protective clothing, and shade, among military personnel.

Signs include changes in existing moles or the development of new pigmented or unusual-looking growths on the skin. Signs to look out for include:

  • changes in the size, shape, or color of moles, 
  • the appearance of new moles, 
  • or moles that look different from others on the body.

Early detection of melanoma is critical as it greatly improves the chances of successful treatment. Therefore, regular skin examinations, both self-conducted and by healthcare professionals, are highly recommended.

Prostate Cancer

Prostate cancer is the most common cancer among male veterans. Research indicates that Vietnam War veterans exposed to Agent Orange are more likely to develop prostate cancer and more likely to have aggressive forms of the disease. Recognizing the symptoms, including difficulty urinating, blood in urine or semen, and erectile dysfunction, is critical for early detection.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) considers prostate cancer to be a “presumptive” disease related to Agent Orange exposure, meaning that veterans who were exposed to the herbicide and later developed prostate cancer are presumed to have a service-connected illness, making them eligible for certain benefits and medical coverage. 

Prostate cancer is often asymptomatic in its early stages, meaning it might not present any symptoms until the disease has advanced. When symptoms do occur, they can include:

  • Difficulty in urinating or a decrease in the force of urine
  • Blood in the urine or semen
  • Discomfort in the pelvic area
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Pain in the hips, back, or chest if cancer has spread to the bones

It’s important to note that these symptoms can also be associated with non-cancerous conditions such as benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH). Nonetheless, if you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, seeking medical advice for a proper diagnosis is crucial.

Bladder Cancer

Bladder cancer has a notable connection with military service due to the potential exposure to carcinogenic substances. Symptoms include:

  • frequent urination
  • pain or burning during urination
  • feeling as if you need to urinate even if your bladder isn’t full
  • and frequent urination during the night.

Because these symptoms resemble those of kidney stones, urinary tract infections (UTI), and other problems related to the kidney, these symptoms do not automatically indicate the presence of cancer.

In advanced stages, the cancer may cause bone pain, swelling in the feet, and unintentional weight loss. 

Colon Cancer

Colon cancer, also known as colorectal cancer, has been linked to exposure to asbestos, PFAS, burn pit fumes, and more. Colon cancer typically begins as small, non-cancerous (benign) clumps of cells called polyps that form inside the colon. Over time, these polyps can become colon cancers. This process usually takes years, which is why regular screening tests like colonoscopies, which can find and remove polyps before they become cancer, are so important.

Symptoms of colon cancer include: 

  • changes in bowel habits, such as diarrhea or constipation that persists for several days, 
  • rectal bleeding or blood in the stool, 
  • persistent abdominal discomfort, like cramps or gas, 
  • a feeling that your bowel doesn’t empty completely, 
  • weakness or fatigue, 
  • and unexplained weight loss.

While these symptoms can indicate other health conditions, if they persist, it’s important to seek medical attention. Regular screening, such as a colonoscopy, is crucial for early detection, especially for those with a history of exposure to harmful substances or a family history of the disease.

Leukemia and Lymphoma

Leukemia and lymphoma are types of blood and bone marrow cancers. 

Leukemia is a cancer of the body’s blood-forming tissues, which includes the bone marrow and the lymphatic system. In people with leukemia, the bone marrow produces abnormal white blood cells, which don’t function properly. These cells proliferate rapidly, crowding out healthy blood cells and leading to severe complications such as anemia, infections, and bleeding. Leukemia involves an overproduction of abnormal white blood cells, impairing the bone marrow’s ability to produce red blood cells and platelets.

There are several types of leukemia, which are typically divided into two categories: acute (fast-growing) and chronic (slow-growing). The major types of leukemia are Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL), Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML), Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL), and Chronic Myeloid Leukemia (CML).

Lymphoma is a group of blood cancers that develop in the lymphatic system. The two main types are Hodgkin’s lymphoma and Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Hodgkin’s lymphoma is marked by the presence of a type of cell called the Reed-Sternberg cell. Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which is more common, has many different subtypes. 

Symptoms for either of these blood cancers can include:

  • fatigue, 
  • frequent infections, 
  • unexplained weight loss, 
  • easy bruising or bleeding, 
  • swollen lymph nodes
  • and more.

Exposure to radiation or chemicals like benzene can increase the risk of blood cancers like leukemia and lymphoma. This is a presumptive condition depending on where and when a veteran served. 

Brain Cancer

Brain cancer arises from the abnormal growth of cells in the brain, forming tumors that can interfere with essential brain functions. Several types, including gliomas and meningiomas, are named for the area of the brain where they originate. While not as common as other types, the PACT Act added brain cancer to the VA’s list of presumptive illnesses. Brain tumors may originate in the brain or start as cancer in other body parts that spread to the brain. Of the above, lung, colon, and melanoma are common cancers that can spread to the brain

Brain cancer can cause various symptoms, many of which are due to increased pressure within the brain. The symptoms can be quite variable, often depending on the cancer’s location in the brain, its size, and its rate of growth. Some common symptoms of brain cancer include:

  • Headaches: Headaches by themselves rarely indicate the presence of a tumor. They are a common occurrence and not cause for concern. If the pattern of the headache changes or becomes more frequent, it is good to consult with a medical professional.
  • Seizures: Brain tumors can irritate the surrounding brain tissue, causing seizures, which can be either general (affecting the whole body) or focal (affecting one part of the body).
  • Cognitive Changes: Depending on the tumor’s location, it can affect various cognitive functions, leading to memory issues, difficulties in speech or understanding, personality or behavior changes, or problems with concentration.
  • Sensory Changes: Brain tumors can cause issues with vision (such as double vision or loss of peripheral vision), hearing, smell, or touch.
  • Motor Problems: Some people with brain tumors may experience weakness or paralysis, usually on one side of the body. They may also have difficulty walking or maintaining balance.
  • Nausea or Vomiting: Tumors increase pressure in the brain. If a tumor is in an area of the brain that helps maintain balance, it may cause dizziness, which can make you feel sick
  • Fatigue: This is a common symptom and is often described as feeling tired or weak, lacking energy.
  • Hormonal Imbalances: Tumors in or near the pituitary gland can cause hormonal imbalances, affecting bodily functions and overall health.

As these symptoms can also be caused by conditions other than brain cancer, it’s important to seek medical advice if they are experienced, especially if they are new, worsen over time, or affect daily activities.

Exposures and Risk Factors

What are some hazards military personnel are exposed to that may increase cancer risk? Military service can involve exposure to a range of hazardous substances. Whether in combat, training, or performing regular maintenance on equipment, servicemen and women are exposed to many toxic chemicals for prolonged periods. Below are some examples of exposure risks that impact a veteran’s cancer risk.

Agent Orange Exposure in Vietnam Veterans

Agent Orange is a defoliant herbicide used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War to eliminate forest cover and crops. It contains harmful dioxins linked to several health issues, including various cancers, neurological disorders, and birth defects in veterans’ offspring, leading to ongoing health concerns.

Agent Orange is a blend of two herbicides: 2,4-D (2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid) and 2,4,5-T (2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid). The carcinogenic risk of Agent Orange is primarily attributed to a contaminant present in the 2,4,5-T component, known as TCDD (2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin), one of a family of compounds referred to as dioxins.

TCDD is highly toxic and is considered a potent carcinogen. It was an unintended byproduct in the manufacturing process of 2,4,5-T, and due to a lack of stringent manufacturing controls during the time Agent Orange was produced, significant amounts of TCDD were present in the Agent Orange herbicide used during the Vietnam War.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies TCDD as a Group 1 carcinogen, meaning it’s “carcinogenic to humans.” Long-term exposure to TCDD can lead to various health issues, including several types of cancer. In the context of veterans’ health, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs recognizes certain diseases, including several types of cancer, associated with Agent Orange exposure.

Radiation Exposure in Nuclear-Related Duties

Veterans involved in nuclear-related duties or cleanup of radioactive materials are at an increased risk of colon and brain cancer. Military personnel can be exposed to two broad categories of radiation: ionizing and non-ionizing.

Ionizing radiation

This type of radiation carries enough energy to knock electrons off atoms or molecules, damaging cells and leading to health problems. Military personnel may encounter ionizing radiation sources, including nuclear weapons, nuclear-powered vessels (submarines or aircraft carriers), radioactive material (from spent fuel or waste), and certain radar equipment.

Ionizing radiation can directly affect the DNA in our cells. If the radiation has enough energy, it can break the chemical bonds in the DNA, leading to mutations. Sometimes these mutations can be repaired by the cell’s machinery, but if the damage is too extensive or the repair isn’t perfect, the cell may die or begin to function abnormally. In some cases, the abnormal function may lead to the cell reproducing uncontrollably, which is the beginning of cancer.

Non-ionizing radiation 

This type of radiation doesn’t carry enough energy to ionize atoms or molecules but can cause damage by producing heat or chemical reactions. Sources of non-ionizing radiation in the military can include communication devices, radar systems, microwaves, and laser systems.

Examples of when a veteran may have been exposed to radiation include:

  • Nuclear Weapons Testing: From the 1940s through the 1960s, the U.S. conducted above-ground nuclear tests, many involving military personnel. These “atomic veterans” were often not sufficiently protected from radiation exposure, resulting in long-term health effects. For instance, during “Operation Crossroads” in 1946, servicemembers were at the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands for nuclear weapons tests.
  • Occupation Forces: After World War II, American servicemembers stationed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, were exposed to residual radiation after the atomic bombings.
  • Medical and Industrial Uses: Certain military jobs, such as health physicists, radiographers, and radioisotope lab workers, involve using radiation for medical treatments or industrial purposes, which can lead to exposure.
  • Depleted Uranium: Depleted uranium is used in armor-piercing ammunition due to its high density. Exposure can occur if someone inhales or ingests airborne particles or through wound contamination.

Exposure to ionizing radiation can increase the risk of several health conditions, including cancer, such as leukemia and thyroid cancer, and non-cancerous conditions, such as cataracts, skin burns, and radiation sickness.

The Department of Veterans Affairs offers Ionizing Radiation Registry health exams to veterans who believe they were exposed to ionizing radiation during their military service. Veterans who develop certain diseases due to their exposure to ionizing radiation during military service may be eligible for disability compensation.

Asbestos Exposure on Ships and Military Bases

 In the military, particularly in the U.S. Navy, asbestos was commonly used from the 1930s through the 1970s. It was frequently used in ships for insulation in boiler rooms, engine rooms, and sleeping quarters and for fireproofing. As such, military personnel may have been exposed to asbestos fibers, especially those working in shipyards or ships

Exposure to asbestos increases the risk of several serious diseases:

  • Mesothelioma: This is an aggressive form of cancer that primarily affects the lining of the lungs (pleural mesothelioma) and the abdomen (peritoneal mesothelioma). It is strongly associated with asbestos exposure and may not develop until many years after the exposure.
  • Lung Cancer: Asbestos exposure can also increase the risk of lung cancer. 
  • Other cancers: Studies have suggested that asbestos might be linked to other cancers, such as ovarian and laryngeal cancer.

Veterans who served in the Navy or worked in shipyards represent a significant proportion of people diagnosed with mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases.

Despite the cessation of asbestos use in new construction or equipment in the military, many older veterans had already been exposed, and the long latency period of these diseases means they are still being diagnosed today. Furthermore, since asbestos was used in many applications, its complete removal has been challenging, and there is still the potential for exposure today from older materials.

Chemical Exposure in Warfare or Training Activities

Exposure to certain chemicals during warfare or training can increase the risk of skin and blood cancers. Commonly known examples include:

  • Agent Orange and other herbicides used in Vietnam
  • Nerve Agents in gas or liquid form used in combat or terrorist situations
  • Mustard gas used during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s
  • Release of toxins during enemy depot demolitions

Support and Resources for Affected Veterans

A cancer diagnosis is devastating, taking an emotional, physical, and financial toll on veterans and their families. Several resources provide support for veterans diagnosed with service-related cancers. 

VA Healthcare Benefits and Cancer Treatment Options

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) offers comprehensive healthcare benefits, including cancer treatment options like chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgical interventions. The National Oncology Program was established to improve cancer diagnosis and treatment for veterans.

The VA has recognized certain conditions, including those listed above, as potentially service-connected. This means veterans with these diagnoses are eligible for disability compensation and healthcare benefits. Eligibility for presumptive conditions will depend on when/where you served and the agents you were exposed to.

The VA also offers health exams for free to identify long-term health problems resulting from exposure. There is no copayment, and these are NOT C&P exams. These registries and exams help the VA study the long-term health effects of military service and alert veterans of potential illnesses:

Disability Compensation for Service-Connected Cancers

Veterans with service-connected cancers are eligible for disability compensation, providing a monthly tax-free payment. The VA has a list of presumptive illnesses, which will make filing a claim easier, but if the veteran’s illness is not presumptive, additional documentation will be needed to prove a service connection. 

Non-profit Organizations and Support Groups for Veterans with Cancer

Several non-profit organizations offer support services for veterans. There are also numerous support groups, both online and offline, to provide emotional assistance and resources for veterans battling cancer.

American Cancer Society

1- 800-227-2345

Cancer Care


Cancer Hope Network


These are only a few of the organizations offering support and information to veterans diagnosed with cancer. 

Military service-related cancers are a significant health concern for veterans. Knowledge about these cancers, their symptoms, potential risks, and available resources is essential for early detection, treatment, and support. Our brave service members deserve nothing less than the best care and resources in their fight against cancer.

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