Skin cancer usually isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when people consider the potential health risks associated with military service. However, studies show active duty military and veterans, especially those in earlier wars, have an increased risk for skin cancer compared to the general population.
U.S. military members are often deployed to tropical areas where the sun shines brighter. The sun’s rays also reflect off sand, water, and are more intense at higher altitudes. Many servicemen and women encounter these conditions on bases and ships or when deployed across the globe.
Military personnel also endure outdoor training and work in environments with prolonged exposure to the sun’s harmful UV rays. And decades ago, especially for veterans who fought in World War II and the Vietnam War, it wasn’t customary to emphasize the risk for occupational sun exposure.
Education on skin cancer and screening efforts have come a long way. The American Academy of Dermatology encourages soldiers and veterans to take steps to detect the disease early and take good care of their skin.
Key findings on skin cancer risks for veterans and military
A report published by the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology in 2018 included the review of nine published studies on military service and skin cancer rates. Some of the findings include:
- The increased risk applies to both active duty service members and veterans.
- Four of the nine studies were specific to melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.
- According to the authors, the military’s demographics include two groups known to have high rates of skin cancer: Caucasians and men over 50.
- The studies found a correlation between service in tropical environments and increased incidence of both melanoma and nonmelanoma skin cancer.
- World War II soldiers who served in the Pacific had a high rate of skin cancer, as well as people who served in the tropics, like Panama.
- The Air Force has the highest rate in both melanoma and nonmelanoma skin cancer.
- Officers, especially older officers, had an increased rate of melanoma and nonmelanoma skin cancers than the enlisted personnel.
- Broken down by job description, pilots have the greatest incidence of skin cancer compared with service warfare officers who spend time on board ships.
- People who are in mechanized units and work with tanks have the lowest incidence of skin cancer.
The studies attributed the higher incidents of cancer to increased sun exposure during military service and lack of adequate sun protection. Both can increase one’s risk for melanoma and nonmelanoma skin cancer.
Occupational sun exposure a reality for military personnel
In an interview for skincancer.org, Dr. Jonathan Bingham, a flight surgeon who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom, said sunscreen was not routinely or commonly issued by the military at that time. In addition, photosensitivity is a side effect of some medications, including doxycycline, a medication used for malaria.
Bingham also said levels of ultraviolet radiation increase by up to 24 percent for each 1,000-meter increase in altitude. Military members stationed in higher elevations, near the equator, on water, or serving in the air, mountains and arctic conditions need to take extra precautions and wear sunscreen all year long.
Carrying and applying sunscreen is not a top priority – or not available – among active duty service members, according to the JAAD review and related commentary. In a wartime environment, the application of sunscreen is often impractical and mandatory sun protection has not historically been ordered within the military.
Other skin cancer prevention strategies, including wearing protective clothing and hats, are not always feasible during basic training and deployment. In desert regions, excessive heat makes it difficult to wear heavy clothing.
Prevention, early detection makes a difference
Soldiers who previously have been deployed or are now veterans can’t reverse the hands of time, but they can take steps to detect skin cancer early.
- Perform regular self-exams to check for signs of skin cancer.
- Ask a partner or trusted friend to examine hard-to-see areas like the back and neck.
- Be on the lookout for any new or suspicious spots, freckles or moles.
- Be vigilant if you detect any spots that are changing, itching or bleeding and see a board-certified dermatologist.
- Schedule a full-body cancer screening once a year.
- Start wearing sunscreen, lip protection, and protective clothing.
- Use common sense and take other protective measures out in the sun.
Every year, skin cancer leads all cancer diagnoses in the U.S., and yet it isn’t something most people want to face. The typical age of active-duty military is 18-25 years old, and many feel they are invincible or don’t think about health risks in the future, Bingham noted.
That’s where family members and friends can help. If you have a loved one serving in the military, send them care packages that include plenty of sunscreen, sunglasses, and wide-brimmed or boonie hats with UPF protection.
APDerm offers a variety of medical, cosmetic, and surgical dermatology services backed by a team of skincare experts. Highly trained board-certified dermatologists provide professional, individualized care and are dedicated to addressing your skincare concerns. Contact APDerm if you are worried about the risk of skin cancer and practice good skincare habits throughout the year!