Although cancer is not the most common ailment a veteran may endure, the number of new cancer cases among veterans reported to the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) each year is jaw-dropping.
Among Veterans, more than 50,000 cancer cases are reported to VA’s Central Cancer Registry each year and research has shown that certain experiences during military service may put Veterans at increased risk for cancer.
According to the Veterans Affairs, their National Oncology Programme diagnoses and treats 43,000 veterans who have cancer each year. The sad reality is that veterans have an 11.4% cancer diagnosis rate, a slightly higher rate than non-veterans (10%). Contracting cancer and other ailments is a potential unexpected risk of military service that a soldier doesn’t think about.
Service members deployed worldwide are exposed to environmental hazards linked to heightened cancer risk. These include exposure to chemical weapons, herbicides, radiations, volatile organic compounds, and other hazardous materials. Research on improving survivability and reducing the effects of harmful substances on veterans can help service members return to duty or have a better quality of life.
Research into cancer and patient care will and does help minimise the burden of cancer on military families, allowing service members to focus on their role and facilitate the overarching military mission.
In the 2019 fiscal year, the Peer Reviewed Cancer Research Programme (PRCRP) invested and disbursed $80,031,719 across the following research topic areas:
- Bladder cancer – $6,179,305.
- Blood cancer – $8,178,698.
- Brain cancer – $5,647,383.
- Cancer in children – $7,450,867.
- Colorectal cancer – $8,435,727.
- Immunotherapy – $7,581,382.
- Liver cancer – $7,042,895.
- Lymphoma – $1,586,149.
- Mesothelioma – $5,632,698.
- Neuroblastoma – $4,907,579.
- Pancreatic cancer – $5,069,558.
- Pediatric brain tumor – $3,234,982.
- Rare cancers – $4,711,460.
- Stomach cancer – $4,373,036.
Investing in cancer research today means that the outcome can take two to four years. Fortunately, cancer treatments have improved considerably for cancer patients. Depending on a veteran’s type of cancer, multiple treatment options exist.
Before discussing the different types of service-related cancer treatment and prevention, let’s go over why service members are at a high risk of developing cancer in the first place.
Exposure to Cancerous Chemicals During Military Service
Studying the health effects of exposure to cancerous chemicals or other toxic substances is challenging as there is a need for records that show military personnel exposed to these substances, how much exposure they had, and for how long they were exposed. Because of this, only indirect assessment of exposures is possible.
Used during the Vietnam War, Agent Orange became infamous for destroying the forests the Vietcong troops took refuge in and the food crops they relied on for sustenance. However, American veterans who participated in the Vietnam War reported deteriorating health conditions after the war.
The VA now recognises and provides benefits for various health problems as presumptive diseases arising from exposure to Agent Orange. Some of these include AL amyloidosis, bladder cancer, chloracne, diabetes, multiple myeloma, Parkinson’s disease, respiratory cancers, and soft tissue sarcomas.
Asbestos, a naturally occurring fibrous silicate mineral, was used in thousands of consumer products in the United States before research found that Asbestos exposure may lead to lung cancer, asbestosis, and mesothelioma.
Since asbestos is an effective insulator, the construction industry quickly adopted the mineral. Although many military veterans faced exposure to harmful mineral dust during their occupation, navy veterans were at heightened risk as asbestos was widely used at shipyards and on vessels. The VA recognises the link between lung cancer and asbestos exposure, offering veterans disability compensation for asbestos-related diseases.
The VA recognises certain cancers related to ionising radiation, such as bone, brain, bladder, liver, multiple myeloma, and other types of cancer. Those veterans who participated in the occupation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki or were part of the nuclear weapons testing in Amchitka Island, Nevada, and the Pacific Ocean may have radiation-related cancer.
Besides the ones mentioned, other types of exposure service members dealt with include contaminated water at Camp Lejeune or the burn pits at military bases across the United States and many other foreign countries.
Diagnosing cancer in its early stages can provide the best chance of recovery. Fortunately, diagnosing cancer is no longer as ambiguous as most people expect. Methods and techniques to diagnose certain cancers, namely lung cancer, have improved significantly. Therefore, many cancer patients can find out early on where the tumours are or where cancer cells are developing. In most cases, early diagnosis allows for more effective treatment of cancers.
Steps Included in a Cancer Diagnosis
Although a biopsy may be the most effective way to tell if someone has cancer and requires treatment, physicians also use other approaches to diagnose cancer, such as imaging tests, physical examinations, and laboratory tests.
Physicians will usually recommend individuals get a lab test first, as this can be one of the fastest ways to tell if they have cancer. When certain chemicals decrease or increase in the body, it could be a sign of cancer. Doctors will likely take urine and blood samples to check for bodily abnormalities. While an imbalance in these substances is not always a definitive sign of cancer, it is a sign for medical professionals to conduct further testing.
Physicians may also recommend imaging tests following lab tests, including different cancer screening methods. These screening tests allow physicians to see inside the body and determine if there is a tumour in the body. The most popular screening tests include a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and a computerised tomography (CT) scan. A CT scan is also one of the most effective ways to check for lung cancer.
A lung cancer diagnosis requires a low-dose CT lung screening scan, which takes multiple x-rays of the lungs to give a detailed image for doctors to review. The process is painless. MRIs are also very effective in finding cancers like lung cancer.
If physicians cannot find the necessary information to confirm an individual has cancer, they will conduct a biopsy. A biopsy includes sending a tube down the body’s natural openings, such as the mouth or anus, to check for tumours. If pathologists – people who conduct the biopsy – find any cancerous tissue, they will extract it along with a sample of healthy tissue. The pathology report often gives more definitive evidence about the possibility of the individual having cancer, especially ones that are more common such as lung cancer.
If vets contact the VA, they will get more detailed information if their health care coverage includes diagnoses like biopsy. Usually, the VA’s health care covers a percentage of the total cancer treatments. If a vet has private health insurance, they must confirm with their provider if their diagnosis is part of their health care.
Popular Treatments for Cancer Patients
Since service members are at a higher risk of developing cancer than the general population, the US government has funded programmes and created departments to help veterans struggling with the condition. The VA and the American Cancer Society have all been initiatives to help veterans understand more about their situation. As a result of the years of research that has gone into finding treatments for cancer patients, many treatment options exist. While there is no definitive cancer treatment, each of them can be effective in helping the individual’s recovery.
Targeted therapy is one of many cancer treatment options that can target and kill cancer cells. This treatment option targets the protein cancer cells use to divide and spread instead of the cancer cells themselves. Now, the cancer-killing substance that each medicine contains will go directly to the cancer cells, effectively stopping them from growing. Patients often prefer this cancer treatment option since it is much less invasive. However, these medicines have side effects, specifically that the cancer cells can evolve and become resistant to the cancer-killing substance. If cancer grows to that stage, physicians must take other care measures. Despite its side effects, cancer patients have increased survival with this treatment option, allowing them to live an extra 18 to 40 months.
While surgery is one of the more extreme cancer treatment options, a physician might recommend it if a tumour has grown extensively. Depending on the type of tumour and where it is on the body, they might remove it with lasers, extreme cold produced through liquid nitrogen or exposing the tumour to excess heat. A physician will often recommend surgery in the earlier stages of cancer to keep the cells from spreading or growing. Cancer care follows critical surgery since patients must also care for the stitches.
After patients receive their diagnosis (which disease or condition explains a person’s symptoms and signs) or prognosis (an opinion, based on medical experience, of the likely course of a medical condition), a physician might recommend receiving radiation therapy. Radiation therapy is one of the most common types of cancer treatment since it can kill effective cancer cells in a specific part of the body.
Unlike surgery, which instantly removes the tumour, radiation therapy is a slow process that damages the DNA over days or weeks. This cancer treatment option is also effective for lung cancer or tumours in the colon. The most common type of therapy includes external beam radiation, but they may also use internal radiation to eliminate tumours in parts of the body.
Photodynamic therapy (PDT) is one of the more advanced treatment options since it uses medicine otherwise activated by light. The source of light could be a laser or an LED. When the medicine finally kicks in, it can proceed to kill cancer cells. Similar to procedures like radiation therapy, photodynamic therapy targets a specific part of the body.
So if the cancer is in the colon or breast, PDT can be a very effective way to treat the condition. As for lung cancer, unlike breast cancer, it is only effective if cancer grows into the airways, which makes it difficult for people to breathe. But if cancer cells are inside the lungs or on the outer lining, PDT is not very effective in treating lung cancer.
Unlike other treatments, immunotherapy does not directly affect cancerous cells in the body. Instead, it affects the immune system, empowering it to fight off cancer cells. By empowering the immune system, immunotherapy arms the body to detect abnormal cells and kill them. If the lymphocytes in the body’s lymph system are working effectively, they should already be attacking the tumours. Through immunotherapy, patients can empower the lymphocytes and kill the cancer cells.
It is very similar to targeted therapy in that it focuses on other body parts that could affect cancer, such as breast, colon, or lung cancer. However, its similarities with targeted therapy also extend to its side effects. So immunotherapy will no longer be effective if the cancer cells grow and become resistant to white blood cells. One of the most common causes for this treatment becoming ineffective is that cancer has mutated.
A physician can recommend hyperthermia treatment, which is heating cancerous tissue to kill its cells. Surgeons can heat the tumour as high as 113°F without damaging the other tissue. It is especially effective in dealing with the brain, breast, and lung cancer. Hyperthermia is rarely the only treatment patients get for their condition, and a physician might recommend it with other types of therapy, such as radiation therapy.
Patients should also remember that this is one procedure requiring anaesthesia. A patient will first allow the physician to numb a part of their body where the tumour is, and then they will insert small probes with tiny thermometers attached to them. The patient will not feel the burning sensation since they have ample anaesthesia.
Chemotherapy refers to using drugs to eliminate cancer cells in patients’ bodies. It works to treat cancer by reducing the chances of it returning or preventing it from growing. Similarly, it can ease symptoms by shrinking your tumour and relieving pain. Chemo is used to treat various types of cancer, and usually, it is provided in conjunction with other treatments. Of course, the treatments you receive will depend on pre-existing health conditions, the type of cancer, and where it has spread in your body. While it can be effective, chemotherapy has side effects, with most patients feeling exhausted. It is administered orally, topically, via injection, or intravenously.
Intravenous chemotherapy is usually delivered through a needle in your lower arm, but other methods use a pump, port, or catheter. The type of chemotherapy drugs administered will vary based on pre-existing health conditions, patients’ history with cancer, and the type of cancer they currently have.
The same applies to how often you get chemotherapy, but how your body responds to it also determines the schedule. A common way is to get it in cycles, with four weeks in each process. It means getting chemotherapy for a while, followed by rest. Because treatment can significantly affect your body, your doctor will recommend lifestyle and diet changes.
Maintenance Therapy Following Cancer Treatment
Following cancer treatment and comprehensive care, patients will usually be able to overcome cancer they were struggling with completely. However, there is no guarantee that patients who once had cancer will not be diagnosed with it again. In these instances, physicians will usually recommend different specific medications for what they might refer to as maintenance therapy. It is one of the most effective ways to prevent cancer from recurring as you continue to take specific types of medicine. Maintenance therapy remains one of the most effective ways to keep patients safe from a possible recurrence.
Maintenance Therapy for Cancer Prevention
When a physician begins treatment for any specific cancer, their main goal is to cure and eliminate it. To accomplish this goal, they will go over various treatment options to help patients recover. Following treatment, if physicians find that a patient no longer has cancer, they are now in remission. However, cancer can sometimes return, even if the individual has recently recovered.
Maintenance therapy can be very effective in reducing the chance of recurrence. The medication prevents cancer cells from developing, allowing patients to minimise cancer risk significantly.
Besides preventing cancer cells from developing, they also significantly slow down tumour growth and spread. Slowing down the spread allows individuals to get treatment over a much extended period without worrying about their condition worsening. It is another incredible benefit that comes with maintenance therapy.
How Prevention Reduces Cancer Risk
While cancer treatment has improved astronomically over the past decades, there is still no guaranteed way of effectively and permanently removing cancer from an individual’s body. Furthermore, as a patient, these treatment options can be costly, as some health insurance policies do not cover them. Some healthcare insurance providers might include different cancer treatments, but if an individual is on medicare or Medicaid, they will not have access to the same coverage. Finally, uninsured patients visiting a medical centre must pay thousands or even millions in medicine or different treatments. Medication can be costly for different types of treatment options.
The VA can also cover a percentage of a veteran’s treatment. As a patient, they will likely have to pay for a part of the medicine and other essentials on their own. Individuals can save thousands of dollars worth of costs by taking active steps to prevent developing conditions like lung cancer, even if they have the right health insurance.
Active Steps Veterans Can Take to Reduce Cancer Risk
Getting cancer care and treatment for lung cancer, even with the right health insurance, can be very draining. It takes a physical toll on the body, and the financial burden that comes with it can be too much for people to handle. Health care and dietary supplements aside, clinical trials and other cancer-related stress can significantly affect a patient’s family. The treatment could affect the family income, and cancer-related medicine could create a heavy burden on patients.
Fortunately, steps that veterans can take to reduce cancer risk. By taking general measures to improve their standard of living, they can significantly reduce their chances of developing conditions like lung cancer.
Get Necessary Vaccination
Cancer usually develops in the body due to weakness, and diseases or infections aggravate cancer cells. Therefore, people must get all necessary vaccinations for various conditions such as Hepatitis B, HPV, and Covid-19. These diseases can be seriously threatening but weaken the body’s immune response, making it more susceptible to developing cancer.
Get Regular Medical Treatment
More minor illnesses and common colds are a part of life, but they can weaken the immune system. Cancer cells can more easily form and even travel to different body parts with a weakened immune system. The body’s first line of defence against cancer cells is the lymphatic system and its corresponding white blood cells. Therefore, patients who catch a common cold should get regular medical treatment. Getting better faster is a form of cancer care and one of the most effective prevention strategies.
Abstain from Risky Behaviors
Adopting a riskier lifestyle can increase the possible risks that come with developing cancer. Smoking dangerous or unknown substances can increase the risk of lung cancer. To avoid becoming cancer patients, veterans should avoid actions that could lead to developing an infection. By avoiding shared needles and practicing safe sex, individuals can significantly minimize their chances of getting serious diseases. If they get these serious diseases, their incidence rate could increase exponentially.
Be Careful When Out in the Sun
One of the most frequent reasons veterans’ risk of developing cancer is so high is excessive exposure to the sun. UV rays are more likely to affect the skin if they don’t cover themselves adequately with proper care. By applying plenty of sunscreens and avoiding the mid-day sun, the chances of developing skin cancer can decrease significantly. Avoiding tanning beds and sun lamps is another effective way vets can stay safe from UV rays.
Stay Physically Active and Perform Regular Exercise
One of the most significant contributors to cancer risk is an unhealthy lifestyle and obesity. An unhealthy lifestyle can weaken the immune response and make the body more susceptible to cancer cells developing. Regular exercise can be a great way of staying in shape and avoiding the risks of obesity. Staying active and performing regular exercise can significantly improve health and prevent symptoms that could otherwise develop into something more serious.
Eat Healthier Foods
Food can significantly dictate an individual’s lifestyle and affect their bodily functions. Eating foods high in fat and with little to no nutritional content can dramatically increase the risk of a person developing an unhealthy lifestyle. They will likely start gaining weight and will not be consuming essential nutrients that can help their immune system fend off most types of abnormal cells. Having a nutrition-filled diet is part of cancer care.
Healthy foods such as eggs, green vegetables, lean meats, chicken, and fish are some of the best foods to eat to maintain a healthy body. Many physicians encourage fish since it features Omega 3, one of the body’s core building blocks. Veterans should also avoid excessively drinking, as even the VA advises against it.
Avoid Tobacco in Any Form
Finally, the best way to reduce the risk of lung cancer is to avoid tobacco in any form. The US Preventive Services Task Force recommends lung cancer screening annually for individuals smoking 20 packs a year. Smoking, in general, can be very harmful to the lungs and can significantly increase the risk of getting lung cancer. While e-cigarettes or vapes are not as harmful as most types of cigarettes, smoking them can still be very dangerous. Usually, people can develop an addiction to tobacco, which compels them to continue smoking. If they struggle to control their urge to smoke, they can instead try a nicotine patch or other safer alternatives.
Different Types of Cancer Health Insurance Coverage
Insurance coverage for cancer treatment can often fall into two categories. Either veterans will get private insurance or rely on various programmes like Medicaid, Medicare, or exclusive VA insurance. With private insurance, veterans must pay a monthly or premium fee and get coverage for specific treatment options or diagnoses. With private insurance, vets will also have to choose an in-network hospital and get treatment from an in-network doctor. If they fail to do any of the two, their insurance claim will not be accepted.
Other programs, like Medicaid, Medicare, and VA, also offer coverage for uninsured veterans. The VA’s insurance works very similarly to its private counterpart, except that the VA pays depending on what percentage they will cover. So if the VA has offered 50% coverage, they will pay for half of all your healthcare expenses.
Similar to private insurance, the VA has its respective network of physicians and specialists. A veteran can contact the VA. to find out what percentage of the cost they cover and what types of treatment they will cover. The VA website also has detailed information about their coverage.
Get Updated Cancer Information from the American Cancer Society
Along with ensuring that veterans could access affordable health care through the VA, the US also set up the American Cancer Society. The American Cancer Society is a hub that contains all the necessary information about cancer and everything cancer-related. The site includes local resources on cancer information, such as treatment options, factors contributing to different cancers, and how cancer develops.
If there are any new developments surrounding cancer, people can learn about it first here. As one of the biggest repositories for cancer-related knowledge in America, the American Cancer Society also offers more information about effective ways of preventing cancer.
Paul Ehline Ride and Veterans with Cancer
Paul Ehline Ride is a US military war veteran’s non-profit co-founded by Marine vets to raise awareness about service-related cancer. They organise and attend motorcycle rallies in the veteran biker community and are all focused on helping veterans with cancer, particularly lung cancer, by helping them with donations. They are experts at finding the right contacts to help them receive radiation therapy with their disability claims.
Sergeant Paul Ehline was also a Marine who recently breathed his last due to cancer. They are also connected with veteran-run law firms to help you set up a PACT ACT claim before the statute of limitations expires. Their team of partners and friends remains known for aggressive representation in individual injury cases and more resources for surviving family members, including social services and other benefits and resources like a managed care plan.