Understanding Cancer Risk for Veterans
Military service can bring unseen dangers like increased cancer risk. The overall rates of cancer across each military branch can vary dramatically.
For example, a 2021 Pentagon investigation studied almost a million service members who flew or worked on military aircraft between 1992 and 2017. The results were unsettling.
Military aircrews were found to have these increased risks over the general population:
- 87% higher rate of melanoma (skin cancer)
- 19% higher rate of cancers of the brain and nervous system for ground crews
- Men were 16% likelier to develop prostate cancer
- Women were 16% more likely to develop breast cancer
- 15% higher rate of thyroid cancer for ground crews
- 9% higher likelihood of kidney or renal cancers for ground crews
Most veterans were well aware that their service and sacrifice would come with great risk. However, with military service behind you, understanding your cancer risk is very important.
Are Veterans at Greater Risk for Cancer?
Yes. Numerous studies have linked military service with an increased risk of cancer. Different forms of cancer are linked to exposure to various toxins. Therefore, the cancer risk in veterans depends on when and where veterans served.
Unfortunately, service members who spent at least 30 days at U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune have an especially high risk for cancer due to water contamination.
However, the Camp Lejeune water disaster is not the only potentially cancerous exposure for veterans.
These are some of the military operations linked with increased cancer risk:
- Agent Orange (Vietnam War)
- Burn pits (Gulf War & Post-911)
- Ionizing radiation exposure (Enewetak Atoll, Palomares incident, and Thule Air Force Base in Greenland)
- Mustard gas (Operation Iraqi Freedom)
- Qarmat Ali Water Treatment Facility in Iraq (2003)
- Waste incinerators near the Naval Air Facility in Atsugi, Japan (1985-2001)
Additionally, some of the highest concentrations of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are found on military bases. And widespread asbestos exposure has left a deadly legacy among veterans with increased rates of mesothelioma.
Veterans diagnosed with cancer may have been prepared for the possibility that the day would come. However, most didn’t think about how they’d tell their family, especially kids.
Should I Tell My Child or Grandchild About My Cancer?
Deciding whether to discuss your cancer diagnosis with your child or grandchild is a highly personal decision.
However, it is important to understand that children can often sense when something is wrong. And they may be even more upset if they believe that information is being hidden from them.
“Do not keep your diagnosis a secret. … Without correct information, they [children] may think things are worse than they are. They may also blame themselves for changes in their parents or family.”
—American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
While the decision is yours alone, most experts agree that you should tell the children in your life about your cancer diagnosis.
Take Time to Prepare Yourself
Preparing to share the news of your cancer diagnosis is an essential step that should not be improvised. If you are prepared, you can help ensure the conversation is as comforting and straightforward as possible.
Here are some tips to prepare for your conversation:
- Choose an appropriate time. Rushing the conversation is not helpful. Avoid times right before other commitments and bedtime. Find a calm and unhurried moment to share the news.
- Decide who you want to be with you. If you are telling your children, talk with your spouse or someone you trust about who should be in the room. If you are telling your grandchildren, speak with their parents first.
- Give yourself time. Before you sit down with your child or grandchild, take some time to absorb the news yourself.
- Make a list of key points. Think about the most important pieces of information you want to convey so you remember to hit them all in a natural way.
Get Educated on Your Condition
Another important way to prepare yourself is to become as educated about your condition as possible. Not only will this help manage your own care, but it will also help you anticipate any questions your child or grandchild may have.
But remember: Not all available information is accurate. It is in everyone’s interest to find the best and latest information available from only reputable sources.
Here are some credible cancer resources you count on to start your search:
- American Cancer Society (ACS)
- American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR)
- American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO)
- Cancer Research Institute (CRI)
- National Cancer Institute (NCI)
- National Library of Medicine (NLM)
Having the Conversation
It’s crucial to be open and honest, using clear language that considers their age, personality, and capacity to process the news. A good place to start is with the basic facts about your type of cancer and where it is in your body. You can then tailor the conversation based on your loved one’s responses.
Tips for Talking With a Child About Cancer
When you share the news with your child, honesty and clarity are crucial. If you are not transparent, your child or grandchild may get even more scared.
Here are 5 tips for talking with children about your cancer:
- Keep the language straightforward and refer to your illness by its medical name.
- Try to direct the conversation by providing information and staying in control.
- Remember, it’s okay to say, “I don’t know.” But promise to get answers.
- Stay calm to show that you are coping, but don’t be afraid to express sadness.
- Welcome their questions, but also respect their wish not to talk if they’re not ready.
How Different Ages May Respond
Your child or grandchild is likely to respond differently depending on their age. Therefore, it is important to tailor your conversation accordingly and be prepared for different reactions.
Here are some typical reactions you can expect, as well as age-appropriate tools you can use to help support your conversation.
Preschoolers (3-6 years)
At this age, children are beginning to understand illness and death. However, they can’t always see things from another person’s point of view. Therefore, you should be careful to ensure they don’t think they somehow caused your illness.
This Sesame Street video called “What Happened?” is designed for children 6 and under. It can help address tough situations like death with children.
School-Age Children (7-12 years)
Older children can grasp more complex facts and the consequences of serious illnesses. Make sure to reassure them that you will always love them and that they will always be cared for. You may even wish to discuss the possibility of death if it is appropriate. You should be able to honestly discuss your condition and treatment plan using simple terms.
MD Anderson Cancer Center created a video called “Kid to Kid: Your Parent Has Cancer” that you may wish to share with your child.
Adolescents (13-18 years)
Navigating the topic of your cancer diagnosis with teenagers requires understanding that most teens need independence. You should encourage an open dialogue about your condition, but also be prepared if they prefer talking with someone else about it.
The NCI published a booklet called “When Your Parent Has Cancer: A Guide for Teens.”
How to Answer a Child’s Questions About Cancer
There is no way to predict what your child or grandchild will ask you. However, thinking about how you would answer common questions can help you prepare for how you respond to your child.
5 Questions Kids Have About Cancer
While every child is different, kids tend to have similar reactions when they find out their loved ones have cancer. This means their questions tend to follow a pattern.
Here are some common questions children have about cancer:
- What is cancer?
- Is cancer contagious?
- Why did this happen?
- Will I get cancer too?
- Are you going to die?
Talking With Your Child or Grandchild About Death
Be straightforward if you decide to talk about death with your child or grandchild. It’s best to avoid using substitutions intended to soften the blow — they often cause confusion. Most children process death slowly, so you should be prepared to be patient.
Make sure to create a supportive network for them so they know they are not alone. Remind them of things you have to look forward to in the future so they remain optimistic.
After You’ve Shared the News
The initial conversation with your child or grandchild is a huge part of the path ahead. However, it is not the only one. The process will be ongoing, and you should also be prepared for that.
“Remember that this conversation is only the first of many and that you can revisit important information as often as necessary.”
—Dana-Farber Cancer Institute
Check in with your child or grandchild regularly to see how they are doing. You should also monitor their behavior to look for red flags that they are not processing the news in a healthy manner.
These can be warning signs that your child is struggling with your cancer diagnosis:
- Noticeable change in behavior that affects their relationships
- Physical symptoms such as headaches or stomach aches
- Sleep disturbances
Make sure to get additional help and support for your child or grandchild if you are unable to help them cope on your own.
Veterans Resource: Managing Life With Cancer
Military veterans are no strangers to sacrifice. While it’s tempting to put your child or grandchild ahead of yourself, don’t forget to address your own needs as well.
There are many available resources to help veterans manage life with cancer.
Make a Plan
Planning ahead is critical to ensure you and your family can live the best lives possible, despite your diagnosis. Unfortunately, many families learn the hard way that expenses related to cancer care can drain nest eggs.
If your cancer is related to the toxic water at Camp Lejeune, you may be able to access compensation through a lawsuit. This is in addition to your VA benefits, and you may be eligible even if you were denied benefits in the past.
Find out if you are eligible with our simple claim process now. There is no cost or obligation, and the case review is confidential.
While the VA offers veterans a wide range of benefits and services, they can be challenging to navigate. This may be especially true for veterans who are also dealing with cancer.
Keep in mind, after you pass away, your family may not even know what they are entitled to through your veterans benefits. Therefore, it is extremely important to get things in order for them.
Veteran Service Officers (VSOs) are experts in navigating the complexities of the VA. They can help with claims processes, reduce the chance of making errors, and help with benefits denials.
You can request assistance from a VSO from the following organizations:
- The American Legion
- Disabled American Veterans
- Vietnam Veterans of America
- Veterans of Foreign Wars
You can also search the VA’s database to find out who your current VSO is or search for a new one.
Through their in-depth knowledge and commitment to advocacy for veterans, VSOs can make all the difference in your life. They can help alleviate stress, free up your time, and ensure you receive the benefits you deserve from your brave service and sacrifice.