Veterans, Military Service, and Cancer Risk

Author: OncoLink Team
Last Reviewed: June 7, 2018

There are approximately 40,000 new cancer cases in Veterans reported annually. As the Veteran population continues to age, this number will continue to rise. This is an unexpected risk of military service. A solider likely doesn’t think about his or her risk of developing a life-threatening cancer, 20 years later, as a result of exposure to chemicals or radiation.

Exposure related cancers have been occurring in Veterans since WWI (with the use of nitrogen and sulfur mustard). Many WWII veterans were potentially exposed to radiation after the dropping of atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Most have heard of Agent Orange, and its use as an herbicide during the Vietnam War. Agent Orange exposure has been linked to many types of cancer including lymphoma, Hodgkin lymphoma, multiple myeloma, lung cancer, prostate cancer and chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Gulf War Veterans may have a higher risk of lung and brain cancers; possibly as a result of exposure to nerve gas, smoke from burning oil wells, and pesticides, though this service connection is still being researched. Even more Veterans have been exposed to asbestos, putting them at a higher risk of developing mesothelioma and lung cancer. The link between service to our country and increased cancer risk is one that we cannot ignore.

Possible causes for increased cancer risk in veterans

Exposure

Associated Cancers

Radiation (from nuclear bombs)

Bile duct cancer

Bone cancer

Breast cancer

Colon cancer

Esophageal cancer

Gall bladder cancer

Liver cancer

Pancreatic cancer

Pharynx cancer

Salivary gland cancer

Small intestine cancer

Stomach cancer

Thyroid cancer

Kidney cancer

Bladder cancer

Leukemia

Lymphoma (except Hodgkin disease)

Multiple Myeloma

Ionized radiation (from nuclear powered ship/submarines)

All cancers

Nerve gas/chemical weapons

Brain cancer

Agent Orange or other herbicides

Chronic B-cell leukemia

Hodgkin Lymphoma

Multiple Myeloma

Non Hodgkin Lymphoma

Lung Cancer

Larynx Cancer

Trachea Cancer

Bronchus Cancer

Some soft tissue sarcomas

Asbestos

Lung cancer

Mesothelioma

Contaminated water at Camp Lejeune

Adult leukemia

Aplastic anemia

Myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS)

Bladder cancer

Kidney cancer

Liver cancer

Multiple Myeloma

Non Hodgkin Lymphoma

Veterans exposed to these agents can get help with healthcare and disability compensation.

Healthcare 

Most Veterans qualify for some level of health care coverage. This coverage is dependent on their service history and/or injuries they may have sustained in combat or service. They must not have been dishonorably discharged from the service to be eligible. To start the application process:

  • Call 1-877-222-VETS or go to www.va.gov/healthbenefits
  • Be sure to have as much information about your military service as you can, as well as any potential exposures to cancer causing agents while you were serving. 
  • You do not need your DD214 (discharge summary) to apply for benefits. However, you can order one through www.archives.gov/veterans.

Disability

The Veterans Administration (VA), presumes that many disabilities, including the cancers listed above, were caused by exposure during military service. This means that veterans and survivors of veterans with a cancer that is connected to service related exposure can collect disability compensation from the VA. 

Apply for VA benefits

Learn more about veterans, exposure and cancer risk.

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