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Health Risks for Veterans, Including Cancer

By Ajay Bhatnagar M.D., MBA

The military service, provided by the amazing men and women who have served, does not come without consequences. The sacrifices our veterans have made are unfathomable in order to protect our country and its people. I would like to personally thank the veterans for their service by writing this article focusing on the increased health risks for veterans which warrants all our attention. There have been numerous studies evaluating the risks of various health conditions for U.S. military veterans. Exposure-related cancers have been occurring in Veterans since WWI (with the use of nitrogen and sulfur mustard). Many WWII veterans were potentially exposed to radiation after the dropping of atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Most have heard of Agent Orange and its exposure has been linked to many types of cancer. Gulf War Veterans may have a higher risk of lung and brain cancers; possibly as a result of exposure to nerve gas, smoke from burning oil wells, and pesticides, though this service connection is still being researched. Even more, Veterans have been exposed to asbestos, putting them at a higher risk of developing mesothelioma and lung cancer. The link between service to our country and increased cancer risk is one that we cannot ignore.

Many people have heard the term Agent Orange, but what is it? Being a cancer doctor, I would like to focus particular attention to Agent Orange since this may be considered the most significant agent related to veterans linked to a variety of cancers.

About three million Americans served in the armed forces in Vietnam and nearby areas during the 1960s and early 1970s, the time of the Vietnam War. During that time, the military used large amounts of mixtures known as defoliants, which are chemicals that cause the leaves to fall off plants. One of these defoliants was a specific chemical that became to be called Agent Orange, and some troops (as well as civilians) were exposed to it. During the Vietnam War, U.S. military forces sprayed millions of gallons of herbicides (plant-killing chemicals) on lands in Vietnam, Laos, and other nearby areas to remove forest cover, destroy crops, and clear vegetation from the perimeters of U.S. bases. This effort, known as Operation Ranch Hand, lasted from 1962 to 1971. Because this herbicide came in drums with orange stripes, it was called Agent Orange. Today, many people use the term “Agent Orange” to refer to all the phenoxy herbicides sprayed at the time.

After a 1970 study found that a specific chemical in Agent Orange could cause birth defects in lab animals, its use in Vietnam was stopped. A year later, all military herbicide use in Vietnam ended. During the 1970s, some veterans returning from Vietnam began to report skin rashes, cancer, psychological symptoms, birth defects in their children, and other health problems. Some veterans were concerned that Agent Orange exposure might have contributed to these problems. These concerns eventually led to a series of scientific studies, health care programs, and compensation programs directed to the exposed veterans.

A large class-action lawsuit was filed in 1979 against the herbicide manufacturers and was settled out of court in 1984. It resulted in the Agent Orange Settlement Fund, which distributed nearly $200 million to veterans between 1988 and 1996.

There have been many studies evaluating the exposure of Agent Orange related to cancer among veterans. These studies have shown a link between certain cancers and exposure to Agent Orange. Specifically, exposure to Agent Orange has been linked to prostate cancer, bladder cancer, soft tissue sarcoma, lymphoma, multiple myeloma, lung cancer, and chronic lymphocytic leukemia.

There are approximately 40,000 new cancer cases in Veterans reported annually. As the Veteran population continues to age, this number will continue to rise. This is an unexpected risk of military service. A solider likely doesn’t think about his or her risk of developing a life-threatening cancer, 20 years later, as a result of exposure to chemicals or radiation. Unfortunately, there are even more common health conditions for veterans such as mental illness among veterans that is now being recently studied and reported. Hopefully, this article will allow you to have even more gratitude for our veterans and enable you to thank them for their sacrifice and service when you meet a veteran walking down the street or at the grocery store.


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