Veterans and Lung Cancer

U.S. military veterans have a higher rate of lung cancer and a lower rate of survival than civilian populations. There are several different reasons for this, but two of the main ones are the higher incidence of smoking among military members and their exposure to carcinogens while serving in the military.

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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 veterans and lung cancer as a smoker’s disease, a self-inflicted illness caused by years of a bad habit. However, many non-smokers are highly prone to developing the disease, including U.S. veterans who served between World War II and the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

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

The reason for that is simple, many veterans were exposed to asbestos, Agent Orange, depleted uranium (DU) and an assortment of other radioactive materials during their military service.

What Is Lung Cancer?

Lung cancer is a blanket name for many different cancers that occur in the lungs. These tumors are caused by clusters of cells growing more rapidly than they should. Some tumors can be quite large, while others too small to see. Sadly, it is also one of the most deadly types of cancer, with around 90% of cases resulting in death.

Types of Lung Cancer

There are two different types of lung cancers: non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and small cell lung cancer.

  • Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer (NSCLC): Around 75% of lung cancers are NSCLCs. The three main types of NSCLCs are adenocarcinoma, squamous or epidermoid carcinoma and large cell carcinoma.
  • Small Cell Lung Cancer (SCLC): SCLCs appear as fatty lumps in the patient’s airways. Because SCLC cells multiply quickly, they have often spread to other organs before the patient receives a diagnosis. However, these types of cancers also tend to respond well to chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

Lung Cancer vs. Mesothelioma

While mesothelioma is often grouped with lung cancers, it’s actually in a category of its own. Unlike lung cancers which affect the lung tissue, mesothelioma affects the lining of the lungs, or the pleura. Exposure to asbestos causes mesothelioma, but it can take 10-50 years from the initial exposure to the cancer formation.

Mesothelioma differs from lung cancer in how it grows. While lung cancer tumors tend to group together, mesothelioma tumors grow into nodules or sheets, making them difficult to identify and even more difficult to remove.

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Lung Cancer and Workplace Exposure Threats

Like previously mentioned, lung cancer is closely linked with smoking (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. This is part of the reason military members have a higher chance of getting of lung cancer.

However, being more likely to smoke is not the only hazard military members face. Many veterans have been exposed to asbestos, Agent Orange and depleted uranium (DU).


One of the main veteran groups who are at risk of asbestos exposure are members who served in the Navy during World War II. The reason for this is asbestos was extensively used in the construction of naval ships in the 1940s.

Aside from working in the shipyards or on the ships, veterans may have also been exposed to asbestos if they were involved in:

  • Mining
  • Milling
  • Demolition
  • Manufacturing
  • Carpentry
  • Flooring or roofing 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.

Agent Orange

Vietnam veterans are also susceptible to lung cancer, but for a different reason—exposure to Agent Orange.

Did You Know?

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Between 1965 and 1971, over 100 million pounds of Agent Orange was used in Vietnam. The herbicide was widely used to clear brush and destroy plant life to remove the enemy’s cover. Agent Orange is very harmful to humans and has been proven to cause a variety of diseases and severe medical conditions, including lung cancer.

Depleted Uranium

More recently, Gulf War veterans have also expressed concern about the possibility of developing lung cancer. Many veterans were exposed to pollution from more than 600 oil well fires in Iraq and Kuwait. Some veterans of this recent conflict are already experiencing health problems.

A big concern for Gulf War veterans is the exposure to the thousands of depleted uranium munitions used during the war. DU is a type of uranium whose residue remains after the highly radioactive uranium is extracted, such as when it was fired from missiles and other munitions.

Troops were exposed to DU by coming into contact with it on tanks and vehicles that shot the missiles, or by coming into contact with vehicles or bunkers that were hit by DU munitions. 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.

Did You Know?

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DU has been linked to bone and kidney ailments, as well as lung cancer. In fact, studies estimate that tumors can form in the lung as soon as 2 to 5 years after inhalation, although they may not be diagnosed until several years later.

Treatments for Veterans With Lung Cancer

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

For example, veterans between the ages of 55 and 80, who currently smoke or only quit within the last 15 years.

This screening can be done using low-dose computed tomography (LDCT), which is a non-invasive imaging procedure. Special x-ray equipment takes a series of pictures of the patient’s lung, which can be looked at as a whole 3D image or taken apart so the doctor can inspect each section of the patient’s lung.

Access Asbestos Trust Funds

Compensation for treatment, loss of income and other damages is available through Asbestos Trust Funds. Mesothelioma patients and veterans with asbestos-related illnesses may qualify.

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Compensation for Veterans With Lung Cancer

All instances of lung cancer in Vietnam vets are considered a service-related illness, and the VA provides disability compensation to those diagnosed with lung cancer.

Veterans who were exposed to asbestos while in service and developed a disease related to asbestos exposure may receive service-connected compensation benefits on a case-by-case basis if they were discharged under conditions other than dishonorable, and they can prove they were exposed to asbestos because of their occupation.

For more information on benefits and veterans and lung cancer, contact the Mesothelioma Justice Network today and speak with one of our VA Claims Agents. Or request your FREE Mesothelioma Justice Guide to learn more about how you may have been exposed to asbestos during your military service career.

Mesothelioma Support Team
Stephanie KiddWritten by:


Stephanie Kidd works tirelessly as a dedicated advocate for the vulnerable and underrepresented. Stephanie worked as a copywriter for an agency whose focus was communicating safety procedures on construction work sites. With her extensive background in victim advocacy and a dedication to seeing justice done, Stephanie works hard to ensure that all online content is reliable, truthful and helpful.

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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