This is the third article of a 3-part series addressing cancer prevention for Veterans. Read part one here and part two here.
We know lifestyle factors like smoking, diet, physical activity and viruses (HPV, for example) can cause cancer. Genetic influences can also affect your cancer risk. Successful cancer prevention strategies address these factors.
But what about military environmental exposures? Many Veterans have concerns about a wide range of military environmental and occupational exposures. Below you’ll discover some of these exposures and cancer risks. Be sure to check back in the coming months for more information on different cancers and their potential exposures, like contaminated water and PFAS chemicals.
Disclosing where, when and how long you served and what you were exposed to can help your provider understand how to best screen you for different types of cancer.
Environmental exposures and cancer risks as a Veteran
If you’re not sure what environmental exposures you may have experienced during your time in the military, there are resources available to help you.
Talk to your provider or contact your local VA Environmental Health Coordinator. They will help you get more information from a VA health care provider who is familiar with military environmental exposures and health effects. An Environmental Health Coordinator can also connect you to an evaluation with VA’s Environmental Health Registry program, which offers a free, voluntary medical assessment for Veterans who may have been exposed to certain environmental hazards during military service. You can also search possible military exposures by war or operation on VA’s Exposures by Wars and Operations webpage or with VA’s free Exposure Ed app.
What are some military-related environmental exposures?
Agent Orange and other tactical herbicides were used during the Vietnam War to destroy enemy cover. Certain cancers like prostate cancer, bladder cancer, soft tissue sarcomas (cancers affecting muscles, ligaments/connective tissue that hold together bones together, and fat) and Hodgkin’s and Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma are associated with exposure to these herbicides.
Visit VA’s Public Health website for a full list of cancers related to Agent Orange. If you served in Vietnam or in other locations where tactical herbicides were stored or tested, and you develop one of the associated cancers, you may be eligible for VA health care and disability compensation. Also, VA offers eligible Veterans a free Agent Orange Registry health exam to screen for possible long-term health problems related to exposure.
Veterans who served in any of the following occupations may have been exposed to asbestos: mining, milling, shipyard work, insulation work, demolition of old buildings, carpentry and construction, and the manufacturing and installation of products, such as flooring and roofing.
Veterans who served in Iraq and other countries in that region could have been exposed to asbestos when older buildings were damaged. Asbestos is primarily associated with lung cancer and mesothelioma. Navy Veterans who may have been involved in repairs of ships may also have been exposed to asbestos. Cigarette smoke and asbestos together significantly increase your chances of getting lung cancer.
If a Veteran’s occupation during their service required them to participate in radiation-risk activities, they may be at risk for developing cancer later in life. Knowing these exposures can help in cancer prevention. Specific radiation risk activities include:
- Veterans who participated in the occupation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, between Aug. 6, 1945 and July 1, 1946.
- Were prisoners of war in Japan during World War II.
- Participated in atmospheric nuclear weapons tests conducted primarily in Nevada and the Pacific Ocean between 1945 and 1962.
- Veterans who participated in underground nuclear weapons testing at:
- Amchitka Island, Alaska before Jan. 1, 1974.
- One of the following gaseous diffusion plants for at least 250 days before Feb. 1, 1992: Paducah, Kentucky; Portsmouth, Ohio; or K25 in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
VA recognizes certain cancers and other diseases as linked to exposure to ionizing radiation during military service, specifically:
- Cancers of the bile ducts, bone, brain, breast, colon, esophagus, gall bladder, liver, lung, pancreas, pharynx, ovary, salivary gland, small intestine, stomach, thyroid and urinary tract.
- Multiple myeloma.
Veterans who participated in the radiation risk activities noted above were exposed to ionizing radiation during military service and may be eligible for an Ionizing Radiation Registry health exam, a free exam offered by VA to screen for possible long-term health problems related to ionizing radiation exposure. You don’t need to be enrolled in VA health care to take part.
Choosing VA for your cancer care
VA is focused on helping Veterans with cancer live better lives. VA providers work hard to ensure the proper cancer screening takes place, and if necessary, work to find the best treatment for your cancer care needs. As a result, this may shorten your treatment time. You may also have fewer side effects during treatment. All VA providers stand shoulder to shoulder with Veterans and support them on every step of their cancer journey.
To learn more about cancer care at VA, visit cancer.va.gov or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cancer prevention during COVID-19
While COVID-19 is an ongoing concern, VA is taking precautions at all VA medical centers to protect you from the virus. Catching cancer early is an important part of successful treatment, so regular appointments and cancer screenings are key for Veterans’ health.
Starting on January 18, 2022, the U.S. government has made at-home COVID-19 testing kits available to every household. To order your at-home COVID-19 tests, visit https://www.covidtests.gov/.