Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in America.
Almost 158,000 people die from lung cancer each year. To put this into perspective: the second highest death rate is from colorectal cancer, with around 52,000 annual deaths.
This Lung Cancer Awareness Month, learn why veterans are especially susceptible to this deadly disease.
Smoking in the military
80% of people who have died from lung cancer were current or former smokers.
Military smoking culture, and using cigarettes as a coping mechanism, are both reasons why service members start smoking. Cigarettes were offered in free rations until 1976, and continue to be sold at reduced prices to military personnel.
If you were a previous smoker but you’re healthy now, you still need to be cautious. Damaged cells can take decades to develop into cancer.
Even if you don’t smoke, your job may have exposed you to illness in ways you didn’t realize. There is a much higher likelihood of exposure to carcinogens among veterans — especially those who served between World War II and the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Exposure is easier than you think
Lung cancer in Vietnam combat vets is automatically considered service-connected.
Vets are 25 to 75% more likely to develop lung cancer than people who did not serve in the military.
Many of them have been exposed to asbestos, Agent Orange, depleted uranium (DU), and other radioactive materials during their service. Pollutants from burn pits, oil well fires, and destruction of chemical weapons are also all linked to lung cancer.
Asbestos exposure is likely for veterans who have been involved in:
Flooring or roofing installation
Exposure to asbestos can cause mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is often grouped with lung cancer, but affects the lining of the lungs instead of the tissue. It tends to grow in nodules or sheets that are difficult to identify and remove.
World War II vets are most affected by asbestos. Iraq and Afghanistan War vets are also at-risk because of the older buildings in those countries.
Many Gulf War veterans are just starting to experience the effects of depleted uranium exposure. This radioactive residue floats in the air and can infiltrate water sources.
Detection and treatment
Part of what makes lung cancer so deadly is how hard it is to detect.
The only proven method for early diagnosis is screening with CT scans, before symptoms have become evident. Unfortunately, around 90% of lung cancer cases result in death.
The VA provides disability compensation for Vietnam vets diagnosed with lung cancer. They also give benefits to veterans who can prove that their cancer is connected to their military service.
If you are/have ever been a smoker, or have been exposed to any of the chemicals known to cause lung cancer: talk to your doctor about getting screened. It might not be a part of your annual check-up, but it could save your life.
If you think you may have been exposed to asbestos in your military career, contact the Mesothelioma Justice Network here:
“Veterans and Lung Cancer.” Mesothelioma Justice Network, https://www.asbestos.net/veterans/veterans-and-lung-cancer/.