Veterans and Lung Cancer

U.S. military veterans have a higher rate of lung cancer and a lower rate of survival than civilian populations. Two of the main reasons are the higher incidence of smoking among military members and their exposure to carcinogens while serving.

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Why Veterans Get Lung Cancer

In the United States, more people die from lung cancer than breast, colon, kidney, and prostate cancers combined. Many people may think of lung cancer as a smoker’s disease.

However, many non-smokers are also at risk of lung cancer — including U.S. veterans.

Veterans and Lung Cancer
Recent studies show that rates of veterans with lung cancer are high. Veterans are 25% to 75% more likely to develop some form of lung cancer than those who did not serve in the military.

The reason for that is simple: many veterans were exposed to carcinogens (cancer-causing substances) while they served.

Known carcinogens that put veterans at risk include:

  • Agent Orange
  • Asbestos
  • Depleted uranium (DU)

Thankfully, veterans with lung cancer related to their military service can access medical treatments through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

The VA Health Care system is well-equipped to diagnose and treat veterans with lung cancer.

Veterans with lung cancer may also be able to receive financial compensation through other VA benefits — and legal options — which can cover medical expenses and other costs related to their health care.

Types of Lung Cancer

Lung cancer is a blanket name for several cancers that occur in the lungs. These tumors are caused by clusters of cells that grow more rapidly than they should.

There are two different types of lung cancers. Get a breakdown of each below.

  • Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer (NSCLC)

    More than 80% of lung cancers are NSCLCs. The main types of NSCLCs are non-squamous (such as adenocarcinoma and large cell carcinoma) and squamous (epidermoid) carcinoma.

  • Small Cell Lung Cancer (SCLC)

    SCLC is a very aggressive lung cancer that can move quickly and often spreads to other organs prior to obtaining a diagnosis. These cancers respond well to chemotherapy and radiation therapy however long-term prognosis remains quite poor.

Sadly, both types of lung cancer are very deadly.

On average, only 24% of those diagnosed with NSCLC will still be alive after 5 years, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).

The survival rate is even worse for SCLC, with just 6% of patients surviving past 5 years.

Lung Cancer vs. Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma, another cancer that affects veterans, is sometimes confused with lung cancer but there are several key differences.

  • Mesothelioma tumors first develop in the linings of major organs like the lungs, abdomen, and heart.
  • Exposure to asbestos is the most notable cause of mesothelioma, whereas lung cancer has many causes.
  • Mesothelioma tumors grow in nodules or sheets, whereas lung cancer tumors tend to group together.

Finally, mesothelioma is much rarer than lung cancer. Just 3,000 cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed each year, while nearly 220,000 new cases of lung cancer were diagnosed in 2016.

Lung Cancer and Service Exposure Threats

As previously mentioned, veterans with lung cancer are often assumed to be smokers (although 17.9% of individuals who get lung cancer never smoked).

There is a higher rate of smoking among military members, especially those who have been deployed than there is among civilians.

However, being more likely to smoke is not the only hazard that military members faced.

Learn more about common carcinogens that increased veterans’ risk of lung cancer.

Agent Orange

Vietnam veterans with lung cancer likely developed it after exposure to Agent Orange, a herbicide used to clear brush and plant life that the Viet Cong used as cover.

Agent Orange Use in Vietnam
Between 1965 and 1971, over 100 million pounds of Agent Orange was used in Vietnam.

Some of the world’s most important medical organizations — including the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the U.S. National Toxicology Program (NTP) — have classified Agent Orange as a known carcinogen.

Asbestos Exposure

Asbestos was widely used by all military branches for decades since it resisted fire, water, and sound extremely well.

Though this dangerous material is now known to cause asbestos lung cancer and other health issues, the U.S. military — and the general public — did not know this until millions had already been exposed.

Did You Know?

Many veterans with lung cancer or other asbestos-related health problems served in the Navy. The reason for this is asbestos was extensively used in the construction of Navy ships.

Many other occupations may have exposed veterans to asbestos while they served.

These jobs included:

  • Carpentry
  • Demolition
  • Manufacturing
  • Milling
  • Mining
  • Roofing or flooring installation

Other at-risk veterans are those who served in Iraq and its neighboring countries. The older buildings there may have released asbestos into the air when they were damaged.

Depleted Uranium

Gulf War veterans have expressed concern about the possibility of developing lung cancer from exposure to depleted uranium (DU) munitions used during the war.

Troops were exposed to DU by operating the tanks and vehicles that shot the missiles, or if their own vehicles or bunkers were hit by DU munitions.

Did You Know?

DU is especially dangerous because its residue does not settle but instead floats in the air and infiltrates water sources such as rivers, oceans, and lakes.

DU has been linked to bone and kidney ailments as well as lung cancer.

Studies estimate that DU-caused tumors can form in the lung as soon as 2 to 5 years after exposure, although they may not be diagnosed until several years later.

Treatments for Veterans With Lung Cancer

Today, veterans with lung cancer can seek treatment from VA medical centers around the country, provided they have VA health care.

Common treatments include: ​

  • Chemotherapy, targeted therapy, and immunotherapy
  • Surgery to remove tumors
  • Radiation

Early detection is key for treatment, which is why the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) suggests annual lung cancer screenings for high-risk individuals.

High-risk individuals are typically:

  • Older veterans
  • Veterans who still smoke
  • Veterans who quit smoking within the last 15 years

This screening can be done using low-dose computed tomography (LDCT), which is a non-invasive imaging procedure.

Did You Know?

Through an LDCT, many X-rays are taken of the patient’s lung. The lung can be looked at as a whole 3D image or taken apart so the doctor can inspect it for tumors.

If doctors diagnose a veteran with lung cancer, treatments will be recommended depending on how far the cancer has spread throughout the body.

Veterans can pursue VA benefits and additional compensation to afford these treatments with the help of a VA-accredited attorney or a Claims Agent.

Compensation for Veterans With Lung Cancer

Other than health care, veterans may qualify for VA benefits if they were diagnosed with cancer.

Lung cancer and mesothelioma veterans benefits can help cover medical treatments and may award other types of compensation.

Important VA benefits include: ​​​​

  • Aid and attendance
  • Disability compensation
  • Pension plans for veterans and spouses

Other VA benefits may also be available depending on each person’s case. Qualifying for VA benefits also depends on what factors caused a veteran to get sick.

All instances of lung or other respiratory cancers in veterans exposed to Agent Orange are considered a service-related illness.

Veterans with asbestos lung cancer may receive VA benefits and compensation if they were not dishonorably discharged and they can prove they were exposed while they served.

To learn more about VA benefits and other forms of compensation that may be available, get a free case review today.

Mesothelioma Support Team
Reviewed by:Dr. Assuntina Sacco

Board-Certified Oncologist

  • Fact-Checked
  • Editor

Assuntina Sacco, MD is an Associate Professor of Internal Medicine at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) Moores Cancer Center, where she also serves as the Medical Director of Infusion Services. She is a board-certified medical oncologist trained to treat all solid tumor types, with the use of chemotherapy, immunotherapy, targeted therapy, and clinical trials.

Dr. Assuntina Sacco is an independently paid medical reviewer.

Stephanie KiddWritten by:


Stephanie Kidd grew up in a family of civil servants, blue-collar workers, and medical caregivers. Upon graduating Summa Cum Laude from Stetson University, she began her career specializing in worker safety regulations and communications. Now, a proud member of the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA) and Editor-in-Chief of the Mesothelioma Cancer Network, Stephanie serves as a voice for mesothelioma victims and their families.

View 6 Sources
  1. Lung Cancer Alliance. "Lung Cancer Facts: Military Men and Women." Retrieved from: Accessed May 14, 2018.
  2. Veterans Health Administration. "Lung Cancer Screening Saves Lives." Retrieved from: Accessed May 14, 2018.
  3. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. "Compensation." Retrieved from: Accessed May 14, 2018.
  4. U.S Department of Veterans Affairs. "Asbestos." Retrieved from: Accessed May 14, 2018.
  5. Global Lung Cancer Coalition. "Types of Lung Cancer." Retrieved from: Accessed May 14, 2018.
  6. National Cancer Institute. "Computed Tomography (CT) Scans and Cancer." Retrieved from: Accessed May 14, 2018.
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