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Written by: Mary Brintnall-Peterson, Ph.D., MBP Consulting, LLC, Professor Emeritus, UW-Extension

Cancer has many causes. It can be linked to an individual’s heredity or the environment. Members of the military and their family members along with veterans have the same risks from heredity as others do, but appear to be at a higher risk of certain cancers. One statistical report from 2015-2016 shows 11% of those who served in the military were told by a health professional they had some form of cancer compared to 10% of the non-military population. (1).  While another report documented 48% of Veterans over 80 were told by a health professional, they had cancer compared to 34% of non-veterans of the same age (2).  Both reports indicate the chances of a military family member caring for someone with cancer is higher than non-military caregivers.

Annually approximately 40,000 cancer cases are reported to the Veteran Affairs office according to their 2012 study.  It noted that Veterans accounted for three percent of all cancer in the United States with most being diagnosed with prostate, lung and bronchial, colorectal, urinary and bladder, and skin melanomas (3).

Environmental Factors Associated with Cancer

So why do military personnel have higher rates of cancer?  It’s because of their exposure to more environmental factors with a higher risk for cancer. The following list identifies environmental factors military personnel or veterans were exposed to that can cause cancer:

(1). Exposure to chemicals in different conflicts (4).

  • World War I-nitrogen and sulfur mustard
  • World War II – radiation after the dropping of the atomic bombs
  • Vietnam War-agent orange
  • Gulf War-depleted uranium, oil well fires, chemical and biological weapons, chemical agent resistant coating (CARC) paint and pesticides
  • Iraq-burn pit smoke, depleted uranium, sulfur fire, chemical warfare agents and chromium.
  • Afghanistan-burn pit smoke and depleted Uranium

(2). Access to tobacco (5).

  • Cigarettes were part of military K-rations until 1975 when the Department of Defense stopped including them.
  • The military stopped subsidizing tobacco in 1996 in the government subsided supermarkets, called commissaries. Before then the military sold 458 million in cigarettes and chewing tobacco at 30-60% less than commercial grocery stores.

(3). Use of cigarettes increases during war or conflicts (5).

  • World War II and Korean Wars Veterans are 35% more likely to die from lung cancer than the general population.
  • It is estimated that 47% of Vietnam and Gulf War Veterans are current smokers.
  • Approximately 70% of Vietnam Veterans have smoked sometime in their life.

(4). Exposure to pollution for long periods of time (5).

  • Oil fires in the Iraq war.
  • Burn pit exposures in Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation New Dawn and Djibouti, and Africa after September 11, 2001.
  • Diesel exhaust.

(5). Exposure to chemicals on military bases (6).

  • Contaminated water, soil and facilities.

Resources for Caregivers

Since military personnel and Veterans have access to health care they can be diagnosed and treated sooner and at a higher rate than non-military individuals who may not have health care. This factor could also be another reason why military personnel and veterans have a higher rate of reported cancer than non-military individuals.

Regardless of why military caregivers are caring for a service member or veteran with cancer there are supports to help them through their caregiver journey. The following resources could be helpful to caregivers as they learn more about the cancer and potential programs to assist their veteran or military personnel:

  1. Camp Lejeune Family Member Program
  2. Veteran Health Issues related to Service History
  3. Chemical or Hazardous Material Exposure 

As families care for their military soldier or Veteran it is important how they utilize the resources to help them through the cancer journey.


  1. Percentageof Americans who reported being diagnosed with cancer in 2015-2016.
  2. Percentage of Americans being diagnosed with cancer as of 2013-2014, by military service and age. 
  3. VA Office of Research & Development.
  4. VA Chemical or Hazardous Material Exposure
  5. Military Bases are Full of Cancer-Causing Compounds
  6. Walter Reed National Military Medical Center – Cancer Center