Veterans, Radiation, and Cancer Risk

November 10, 2014
Amber Bauer, ASCO staff

Tomorrow, November 11, marks the celebration of Veterans Day. This is a day that honors all of America's veterans for their “patriotism, love of country, and willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good,” according to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). And while those serving in the armed forces recognize the danger they put themselves in during time of conflict, many don’t realize the risk of cancer that may follow them home.

Radiation exposure and cancer

Some veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces may have been exposed to substances during their time of service that are known to cause cancer, such as ionizing radiation. Ionizing radiation is radiation that has enough energy to break chemical bonds and knock electrons out of atoms, creating an ion (hence the name). When this happens in the body, it damages and even kills cells.

According to the VA, about 195,000 service members who served in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan following World War II (WWII) or were prisoners of war (POW) there and approximately 210,000 service members who participated in atmospheric nuclear weapons testing from 1945 to 1962 were exposed to varying levels of ionizing radiation. These veterans may be at risk of developing long-term health problems, including one or more of the following cancers:

Programs and assistance

Veterans who served or were POWs in Japan during WWII and those who participated in atmospheric and certain underground nuclear weapons testing are eligible to participate in VA's Ionizing Radiation Registry. This program includes free health examinations at VA medical centers. To make an appointment for an Ionizing Radiation Registry examination, call your local VA medical center or 877-222-8387 for assistance.  The VA also provides disability compensation to veterans who develop radiation-related diseases who meet specific criteria and their survivors.