Understanding cancer risk in veterans
Kathryn E. Vinson, MS, CCRC
With this being Memorial Day Weekend, I’ve been thinking about the brave men and women that made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom and safety. We honor these heroes in ceremonies all across the nation today. From all of us here at Cancer Horizons, we thank you and honor those lost and their families for their service and sacrifice. Although Veteran’s Day isn’t celebrated until November, I wanted to take some time to discuss the high rates of cancer in our living veterans.
Information from the Department of Veteran’s Affairs tells us that the five most common cancers in our veterans are: prostate, lung and bronchial, urinary and bladder, colorectal, and skin melanomas. Sadly, about 40,000 cases of cancer are reported to the VA each year, representing about 3% of all cancer cases in the US.
One of those veterans that came home was my grandfather. Grandpa served as a young Marine on Iwo Jima, Bougainville, and Guam. He smoked for as long as I could remember, only kicking the habit a few years prior to his death. Ultimately, it was lung cancer and that smoking that took him at 77 years of age. On the few occasions he would talk about his service (he suffered from PTSD, although it wasn’t labeled as such back then), he often said during times of stress, they were just thrown a pack of cigarettes and told to calm down.
Thank God that nowadays we know so much more about the health impacts of smoking, and how to help our veterans deal with stress in more healthy manners. We discussed Smoking and Bladder Cancer last week, and that seemingly unlikely connection.
Unfortunately, tobacco isn’t the only carcinogen to which veterans are exposed.
In 2014, the Institute of Medicine released a report on herbicides, such as the defoliant Agent Orange that was used in Vietnam, and their associated risks with the development of various cancers. The below information is extracted from www.cancer.org.
Other cancers in this report were listed as having insufficient evidence to show an association.
Tragically, one cancer stands out prominently in its alarming effect on our veterans: mesothelioma. While the 2003-2008 incidence levels for mesothelioma were approximately 1.05 per 100,000 in population, roughly 1/3 of those diagnoses were in veterans. Using 2014 numbers, there were approximately 21.8 million veterans in the United States, with a population of 319.2 million. Quick math shows us that veterans make up approximately 7% of the US population, but account for 33% of mesothelioma diagnoses. Why this disparity in numbers? Quite simply, from the 1930s to the 1970s every branch of the US military utilized asbestos, the known carcinogen in mesothelioma, in insulations and fire retardants, the highest rate being used in the Navy. Unfortunately, the military was unaware of the carcinogenic properties of this material, having been lied to by manufacturers. Even more frightening, is that this disease can take ten to fifty years (yes, you read that right – 50 years) to present in patients. We pray that as the 50th anniversary of the cessation of asbestos use draws closer, we will begin to see a decline in the incidence of mesothelioma. We will discuss mesothelioma in greater detail later this week.
If you or a loved one are a veteran battling cancers, please take a look at our Financial Assistance Directory for various programs that can help you with the financial toll produced by these diseases. Numerous programs are also available specifically for veterans battling cancer. Also, take a look at our page dedicated to Advocacy & Support Groups by cancer type.
Once again, from all of us here at Cancer Horizons, many thanks to our brave men and women that made the ultimate sacrifice, and to their families and loved ones. Have a happy, blessed, and safe Memorial Day.