Cancer and Gulf War Veterans

November 14, 2014
Amber Bauer, ASCO staff

Some veterans of the 1991 Persian Gulf War have reported a wide range of symptoms including chronic headaches, memory and concentration problems, pain, gastrointestinal problems, and several other symptoms. The term Gulf War Syndrome is often used to describe this collection of medically unexplained chronic symptoms. Although Gulf War Syndrome is one of the most commonly known health effects of military service during the Gulf War, other serious illnesses, including cancer, have been observed.

Chemical exposure and cancer risk

According to the results of the Post War Mortality from Neurological Disease in Gulf War Veterans study, veterans may be at increased risk for developing amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), multiple sclerosis (MS), Parkinson's disease, and brain cancer. This increased risk may be related to exposure to oil well fire smoke, nerve gases like sarin and cyclosarin, drugs used to protect against nerve gas, and pesticides to name a few.

The updated Gulf War Illness and the Health of Gulf War Veterans report (page 2) states:

Studies reviewed in this report show that Gulf War veterans who were most exposed to the release of nerve gas by the destruction of the Khamisiyah Iraqi arms depot have significantly elevated rates of death due to brain cancer. Veterans who were exposed to the highest level of contaminants from oil well fires also have increased rates of brain cancer deaths.

In addition, research using state cancer registries suggests Gulf War veterans may have an increased risk of developing lung cancer. However, according to the 2014 report: “In general, cancer risk remains unknown and understudied.”

Programs and assistance

Veterans of the Gulf War, including those who served in Operation Desert Shield, Operation Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom, or Operation New Dawn, are eligible for a free Gulf War Registry health exam by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Veterans who are eligible for the Gulf War Registry can also join the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry.

Registry exams are separate from the VA’s disability compensation program. Veterans have to file a claim for disability compensation for health problems related to Gulf War service. Keep in mind, though, in July 2014, the VA rejected a request from members of Congress and veterans to make brain cancer, lung cancer, and migraines presumptive conditions for Gulf War veterans. This would mean the VA would “presume” these conditions were caused by military service during the Gulf War. Because of this rejection, Gulf War veterans must prove their illness was related to their wartime activities.

If you have questions, you can call the VA’s Gulf War Information Helpline: 800-749-8387.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • Are there any health risks related to my military service?
  • Might I have been exposed to any toxic agents during my service?
  • Are any of these agents possibly linked to cancer?
  • What services are included in my health examination?
  • Do I need to prove that I was exposed to a toxic agent to receive an examination or other health benefits?
  • What other health benefits are available to me?
  • Where can I receive treatment for cancer or another health condition?
  • Where can I get more information about my health benefits?
  • What other benefits are available to me? To my family?
  • What steps can I take to help reduce my risk of cancer?
  • What research is ongoing?