5 Most Common Veteran Cancers

The top five most common cancer types for veterans and service members include prostate, breast, lung, skin, and mesothelioma cancers. Learn more.

A women hugging another women veteran with breast cancer, one five most common cancers for veteran.

Common Veteran Cancers 

Unfortunately, receiving a cancer diagnosis in the military may still be common. There are a group of most common cancers that veterans tend to be diagnosed with because of their exposure to high levels of stress, toxic chemicals, and other items. Prostate, breast, lung, skin, and mesothelioma cancers are the top five most common cancers for veterans. If you have been diagnosed with cancer and believe it was contracted during your military service, you may have options to receive support from the government. Military veterans often face exposure to toxic substances that may later cause various forms of cancer, and the VA has recognized the need for treatment options, financial support, and general information on the topic. If you were exposed to Agent Orange, asbestos, radiation from nuclear materials, burn pits, or other toxic substances, you might consider undergoing cancer screenings to check your health.

1. Prostate Cancer – Most Common Cancer in Men

The likelihood of being diagnosed with prostate cancer goes up as you age, but male veterans may have a higher chance of getting it because of their exposure to Agent Orange. The herbicide Agent Orange was used during the Vietnam War to spray on the dense forest to expose the hiding enemies. It also had its effects on female veterans by creating issues for women to conceive or causing birth defeats to their children. The herbicide spraying made it easily breathable, and it remained a health risk for up to a couple of days until sun exposure would neutralize it. The connection between Agent Orange and veteran prostate cancer is undeniable now, but at the time, veterans weren’t aware of the risks they were taking.

Although Agent Orange is known to increase the likelihood of prostate cancer for veterans, it is also diagnosed often for men outside of the military. Symptoms are typically unique to prostate cancer because of the location. The prostate gland is found in males near the bladder, and its main function is to produce semen. When cancer occurs in the prostate, the functioning of the bladder is often disrupted, causing some side effects. Typical symptoms of prostate cancer may include:

  • Pain while urinating
  • Urinating more often than normal
  • Blood found in urine or semen
  • Continuing back, hip, or pelvis pain
  • Pain while ejaculating

The occurrence of prostate cancer accounts for 30 percent of new cancer diagnoses for veterans at VA centers. A veteran’s chances of living with prostate cancer could be high, but there are places to seek medical information about symptoms, warning signs, treatment, and more. The Miami VA Healthcare System is one location known for providing excellent healthcare services to those with prostate cancer. They offer options for treatment to include surgery and other minimally invasive procedures to ensure you receive the best-individualized care.

2. Breast Cancer – Most Common Cancer in Women

Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers diagnosed in women, but women veterans have an almost 40 percent higher chance of being diagnosed than the rest of the population. This alarming statistic should bring women veterans to consider getting screened for breast cancer. Mammograms are the most common way to screen for breast cancer and are suggested to be done as often as every year.

Breast cancer can be diagnosed in men and women, although it is more common in women. The tie to military members can be seen from exposure to toxic substances, higher stress levels, radiation from radio emissions, and more. Women working as radio operators, electricians, and other areas with radiation have a higher chance of being diagnosed. It may not be possible to eliminate exposure while working, but access to early detection methods may lead to easier treatment. Be aware of these warning signs and symptoms of breast cancer:

  • Lumps in breast or armpit areas
  • Abnormal swelling of breasts
  • Redness or flaky skin around breasts
  • Discharge or blood from breasts
  • Abnormal breast or nipple pain

You should seek medical attention if you are experiencing any combination of symptoms. Numerous medical centers specialize in the treatment of breast cancer. The Fayetteville VA Medical Center in Fayetteville, North Carolina, has a group of teams that work on various women’s veteran care. Among their health services is access to breast cancer screenings, treatment options, and long-term wellness checkups. Five other clinics and locations underneath this medical center expand access to their services.

3. Lung Cancer – Burn Pits and Deployed Veterans

There are many potential causes for lung cancer, and veterans have additional risk factors which give them a higher chance of being diagnosed. One of those risk factors includes exposure to burn pits. The military utilized burn pits to eliminate waste at their work sites before leaving. The burnt materials often included human waste, military vehicles, and metals. Burning these items in releases toxic chemicals into the air, inhaled by those surrounding the sites. Exposure to smoke may not directly lead to cancer, but it could lead to other health issues such as aggravated asthma, difficulty breathing, heart attacks, or other lung diseases.

You may notice changes in your breathing capacity when lung disease and cancer become present. Look out for these symptoms if you are suspicious of having lung cancer:

  • Prolonged coughing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Wheezing
  • Coughing up blood
  • Unknown weight loss
  • Extended fatigue

A veteran’s risk of getting lung cancer is high and is something to keep an eye on. Around 900,000 veterans are at risk of developing lung cancer because of their environmental exposure to toxic chemicals or their smoking habits. Some doctors recommend you receive a lung cancer screening every year after coming home from military service.

If you are needing help with cancer care, the VA Boston Healthcare System is one place to consider. In Boston, they have a specialty section of people dedicated to cancer care in many forms. Their teams can assist veterans with accessing lung cancer screenings, treatment, and therapy during and after their journey.

Since the introduction of the PACT Act in 2022, more veterans have had the chance to access cancer care because of the bill’s extension of care for those with toxic substance exposure. Some veterans with lung cancer caused directly by exposure to the chemicals from burn pits or Agent Orange are now covered. The bill also allows veterans to seek compensation for their exposure to toxic substances that caused their cancer.

4. Skin Cancer – Most Common Cancer in the United States

A sometimes invisible or hard-to-notice cancer happens with the largest organ in the human body, the skin. Skin cancer can come in many forms and is most often thought of as a mole that is cancerous. The largest group of people to be diagnosed with skin cancer are Caucasians over 50, which can often be found in veteran populations. Active duty military can often find themselves exposed to the sun’s UV rays for long periods of time and may forget to apply sunscreen protectants, increasing their chances of getting skin cancer.

Performing frequent checks of the body, either yourself or by someone else, to check for cancerous spots may be the easiest to check early. When you are checking your body, look for rough or scaly patches, wart-like growths, dark moles, moles of irregular shapes, and any other irregularities with your skin. We encourage you to see a dermatologist immediately if you find suspicious spots.

Dermatology care can be found at your VA healthcare center. The VA Palo Alto has a dermatology specialty care section with multiple locations surrounding the area. They provide care from surgery intervention to cut out the cancerous skin patches or specialized treatment for each individual.

5. Mesothelioma – Highest Rate for Rare Disease Among Veterans

Mesothelioma is a unique form of cancer specifically tied to a high rate in veterans because of their frequently unknown exposure to asbestos fibers. Asbestos is the only known direct cause of mesothelioma and is typically inhaled or ingested into the body. Veterans were exposed to the mineral by working directly with or living and working in places where asbestos was used in:

  • Paint
  • Cement
  • Insulation
  • Heat-protected pads
  • Roofing materials
  • Construction materials
  • Laboratory furniture
  • Boilers

Asbestos was used in the military because of its high durability and heat-resisting qualities. At the time when asbestos was used, it wasn’t known that it would have such deadly effects. Today, many veterans are being diagnosed with mesothelioma as a direct outcome of their prolonged exposure during their time in the military. Veterans who were boiler makers, plumbers, shipyard workers, electricians, and brake mechanics are among the group with the highest chances of developing mesothelioma.

There is financial and medical mesothelioma support for veterans diagnosed with or who are suspicious they have mesothelioma. Inside the VA medical centers, multiple places can help you find mesothelioma care, such as the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare system, which is among one of the top places for veteran care and has access to some of the best therapy technology for mesothelioma. Their facilities have mesothelioma specialists who will work with the individual to find a specialized treatment plan that will work for them. California had a high rate of asbestos mining, and many military workers found themselves exposed to asbestos-related diseases.

Does the VA Cover Cancer Treatment?

Yes, the VA may pay for your cancer treatment and care if your cause for cancer can be directly connected to your military service. It may not be that simple to prove you were exposed during your military duty, but you can request your records from where you worked or were stationed to determine. Receiving a cancer diagnosis may be the last thing you considered when serving your country, but you should seek out compensation if you were exposed during your service. If you have cancer and were exposed to these items, you may qualify for full coverage by the VA:

Exposure                                  Associated Cancers

Agent Orange                        Prostate Cancer, Bladder Cancer, Lung Cancer

Radiation                                Breast Cancer, Colon Cancer, Lung Cancer, Bladder Cancer, Liver Cancer

Asbestos                                Mesothelioma, Lung Cancer

Burn Pits                                 Lung Cancer, Melanoma, Kidney Cancer, Brain Cancer

What Happens if you get Cancer in the Military?

We urge you to learn more about your options if you are a veteran and you believe your cancer could be from exposure to toxic substances during your military service. Caring for someone with cancer can take a toll mentally, physically, and financially. If we can help take the financial burden off you, you can take care of yourself or a loved one more easily. By filing a claim through Mesothelioma Vets, you can unlock your compensation or medical care for your cancer treatments from the VA.