Cancer Risk for U.S. Veterans

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 07/2022

Some veterans of the United States Armed Forces may have been exposed to substances during their military service that can cause cancer. This means they could be at a higher risk for certain types of cancer.

If you are a U.S. veteran, talk with your doctor about your possible exposures. They can help you figure out your cancer risk and create a care plan. For example, they may recommend certain cancer screening tests or other medical tests.

You may also be able to get health care and other benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Please note this link and others below take you to other, independent websites.

The VA and other groups continue to look for new links between military exposures and cancer.

Exposure to Agent Orange and cancer risk

During the Vietnam War, the U.S. military sprayed over 19 million gallons of plant-killing chemicals called herbicides. The most used herbicide mix was Agent Orange, which is described on the VA's website.

The U.S. military stopped using Agent Orange in 1971. Since then, researchers have done many studies to find out if Agent Orange exposure causes cancer. Based on this research and federal law, the VA assumes that herbicide exposure is related to these cancers:

The VA offers a free Agent Orange Registry health exam. Veterans who served in Vietnam or some other Agent Orange exposure sites can sign up. The health exam includes a physical exam and any needed medical tests. Contact your local VA Health Environment Coordinator for more information. Or call VA Health Care: 877-222-8387.

You can also learn more about other VA benefits for Agent Orange exposure.

Exposure to burn pits and cancer risk

Burn pits are areas that were used to burn trash. Burn pits were commonly used as a waste disposal method at military sites outside of the United States. Because many different toxic materials were burned, there are risks for developing lung cancer, laryngeal cancer, and head and neck cancer.

As of April 2022, the VA announced that nine rare respiratory cancers are connected to exposures to burn pits. Veterans who served in Southwest Asia from August 2, 1990 to the present, or Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Syria, or Djibouti from September 19, 2001 to the present may be eligible for disability benefits. Learn more about airborne hazards and burn bit exposures on the VA website. These veterans are also eligible for VA's Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry. These registries help the VA learn about veterans' cancer concerns.

Exposure to asbestos and cancer risk

Asbestos is a mineral that was used in many different products, including building materials, because it is heat resistant. It is now known that asbestos causes lung cancer and mesothelioma, which is cancer of the lining of the lungs or abdominal cavity. Asbestos exposure can also cause lung tissue scarring that leads to breathing problems.

Veterans who served in Iraq or other Middle Eastern nations could have had contact with asbestos when buildings were demolished. Other veterans may have been exposed to this material on ships, during construction, and during vehicle and plane repairs.

If you worked in mining, milling, shipyards, construction, carpentry, or demolition, you should talk to your doctor about your risk of developing lung cancer or mesothelioma. Especially if you worked with products like flooring, roofing, cement sheet, pipes, insulation, and clutch facings and brake linings.

The VA website has more information about eligibility for disability benefits if a veteran's illness has been caused by asbestos.

Exposure to ionizing radiation and cancer risk

Ionizing radiation is a type of radiation that has enough energy to damage cells in the body. This cell damage can cause cancer.

Veterans who took part in what the VA calls a radiation-risk activity may have been affected by ionizing radiation. These veterans:

  • Took part in above-ground nuclear weapons tests between 1945 and 1962

  • Served in or near Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan before 1946

  • Were held as prisoners of war in Japan during World War II

  • Took part in certain underground nuclear weapons tests after 1974

The VA assumes that radiation-risk activities are related to these cancers:

Besides radiation-risk activities, there are other ways U.S. veterans may have been exposed to radiation during their service, described on the VA website. However, these exposures are not as likely to cause health problems.

Some veterans may be able to get a free Ionizing Radiation Registry health exam from the VA. Contact your local VA Health Environment Coordinator for more information, or call VA Health Care at 877-222-8387.

You can also learn more about other VA health care benefits related to radiation exposure.

Other military exposures that may put U.S. veterans at risk for cancer

Other military exposures that may put some U.S. veterans at risk for cancer include:

Waste incinerators near the Naval Air Facility in Atsugi, Japan. Veterans at this facility between 1985 and 2001 may have been exposed to environmental hazards from waste incinerators. According to the VA, this exposure could possibly raise the lifetime risk for cancer. But based on current research, the VA does not assume it will. Learn more about the health effects from pollution at Atsugi on the VA website.

Qarmat Ali Water Treatment Facility in Iraq. Veterans who guarded this facility during the spring and summer of 2003 may have been exposed to hexavalent chromium. This chemical can cause lung cancer. The VA offers a free Qarmat Ali Medical Surveillance program. This program gives exposed veterans ongoing physical exams and medical tests.

Mustard gas. Mustard gas is a chemical weapon used during World War II and the Iran-Iraq war. Some veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom may have also been exposed to the gas. The United States also tested mustard gas on nearly 64,000 of its soldiers in the 1940s. The VA assumes that full-body exposure to mustard gas can cause:

Learn more about mustard gas exposure on the VA website.

Water contamination at the U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. Between 1953 and 1985, there were toxic chemicals in the drinking water on base at Camp Lejeune. The VA may give certain health care benefits to exposed veterans who develop these cancers:

Learn more about Camp Lejeune water contamination on the VA website.

Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). PFAS are man-made chemicals. They are used in many everyday products, such as clothing and paper food packaging. They are also found in fire-fighting foams. Some studies suggest that PFAS exposure raises the risk of some cancers, including testicular cancer and kidney cancer. The U.S. Department of Defense is studying if the use of this foam by certain U.S. military bases polluted off-base water supplies. Learn more about possible health concerns related to PFAS on the VA website.

Do veterans of the Gulf War have an increased risk of cancer?

Researchers continue to investigate whether veterans of the Persian Gulf War may be at an increased risk of developing cancer. This risk may be related to exposures such as oil well fire smoke, nerve gases, drugs that protect against nerve gas, and pesticides, and from burn pits.

Gulf War service is currently linked to certain chronic illnesses that are otherwise unexplained. It is also linked to cancers that are associated with burn pit exposure (see above). Some past research also suggests that Gulf War veterans are at increased risk for brain cancer and lung cancer. But current studies say more research is needed.

Gulf War veterans may be eligible for VA health care benefits. Gulf War veterans can get a free Gulf War Registry health exam and they are eligible for the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry. These registries help the VA learn about veterans' Gulf War cancer concerns. Gulf War veterans, their dependents, and survivors may also be eligible for health care and disability compensation for illnesses related to their Gulf War military service. Learn more about Gulf War veterans' illnesses on the VA website.

Contact your local VA Health Environmental Coordinator for more information, or call VA Health Care: 877-222-8387.

Questions to ask the health care team

  • Are there any known health risks related to my military service?

  • Could I have been exposed to toxic agents that cause cancer during my service?

  • Are there certain cancers that I may be at risk for?

  • Can cancers that I may be at risk for be prevented or found early through regular screening?

  • Where can I get treatment for cancer or another health condition?

  • Do I need to prove that I was exposed to a cancer-causing agent to get a VA health exam or other VA health benefits?

  • What VA benefits are available to me? To my family?

  • Where can I find more information and research on military exposures?

Related Resources

Resources for U.S. Veterans with Cancer

Understanding Cancer Risk

Cancer Screening

More Information

CancerCare: Veterans

OncoLink: Veterans Military Service and Cancer Risk

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: Military Exposures

Veterans Prostate Cancer Awareness (VPCa)