More than two decades since the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, veterans of the War on Terror are coming to terms with the physical consequences of their service. Chief among them? Cancer. 

Unfortunately, there is still much to learn about the deadly disease and its impact on the military population.

The U.S. Special Operations Command recently published a memo calling for all special operations forces (SOF) service members and veterans to report any cancer screenings and diagnoses so their records are up to date for ongoing research on the prevalence of cancer within SOF. 

A part of that memo encouraged people to seek out cancer screenings because early detection can be the difference between life and death. However, resources are limited, and most military members don’t meet the national cancer criteria required to get a cancer screening, while other types of cancer don’t have a standard cancer screening process. 

Chelsea Simoni, co-founder of the HunterSeven Foundation, said the memo comes from a good place, but more involvement is needed. 

“There needs to be a conversation at a table with SOCOM, whoever the VA liaison is for SOCOM, and these benevolent organizations that truly make a difference in health care and community,” Simoni said. “That must be a serious conversation, and we all must be on the same page.” 

Is cancer more prevalent in special operations?

The SOCOM memo has brought up the topic of cancer being more prevalent in SOF compared to conventional military units. But, it’s not merely serving in a special operations unit that correlates to the likelihood of developing cancer. For post-911 servicemembers, whether they deployed or not, 1 in 7 veterans will be diagnosed with cancer based on HunterSeven’s research. 

“I think there’s confusion over SOF being more likely to be diagnosed with cancer. What we’ve seen in preliminary studies is that those who have an extended time in service are more likely to be diagnosed with cancer,” Simoni said.

The Air Force has the highest rates of cancer, and that’s not specific to the Air Force Special Operations Command. According to HunterSeven’s research, the U.S. Marine Corps has the lowest rates of cancer. The difference is that more Marines serve their initial enlistment and get out, whereas many in the Air Force make a career out of it.  

Simoni gave an example of a Green Beret and an Air Force pilot. They are more likely to serve an entire career because of the time and work they dedicate to earning their positions. So it’s long-term exposure to toxins and the stressors of service that correlate to cancer, not so much what unit you serve in. 

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More important differentiators for service members are whether they have a family history of cancer, where they were located for extended periods, job hazards, and environmental factors they were exposed to. As an example, Navy SEALs stationed on the East Coast have a high chance of developing brain cancer, while Green Berets who spend ample time in Africa have a high risk of developing gastrointestinal cancers. 

Lack of sleep, poor diet, and chronic stress are common in military service, especially with SOF units who often work through the night. Environmental stressors contribute to an increase in inflammation within the body, which weakens the immune system and places personnel at higher risk of developing cancer. 

Toxin exposure is a significant concern. Most conventional units fire approximately one thousand rounds a year or less, whereas a special operations unit will fire hundreds of thousands of rounds in a six-month training cycle, which significantly ramps up the risk of cancer, said Geoffrey Dardia, the director of the Task Force Dagger Special Operations Foundation’s Health Initiates Program.

“The basic infantry rifleman, right? They do a qualification range a couple of times a year,” Dardia said. “Other than that, they are shooting blanks unless they’re in combat. So, in training, they’re not shooting shit.”

Simoni said the biggest takeaway from their research is that time in service, and a family history of cancer are the two most significant correlating factors for service members developing cancer. 

“Preliminary studies show that there’s not a more likely risk associated with special operations than with any other military occupation,” Simoni said. “In terms of SOF being diagnosed at a higher rate compared to all post-911 service members and veterans, I don’t believe that that’s an adequate assumption.”

Cancer screening and exams for veterans

Cancer screenings are not typically easy to get for anyone under the age of 50. Active duty special operations members have a more clear route to getting a cancer screening compared to veterans, though.

 “Overall, active duty care is really good. The difficult things we see are after service, like veteran status, getting them squared away,” Simoni said. “Like the VA, that’s not happening. It’s very unfortunate. We’ll often have to pay for outside care for them to get screened like colonoscopies, second opinions, routine care, and follow-up appointments”

Simoni recalled a veteran that her team helped where traditional criteria would have barred him from cancer screenings. Through HunterSeven, the 40-year-old U.S. Navy Aviator was screened because his aviation unit has a high prevalence of colon cancer. 

“So the average age for colon cancer screening is 50, with a family history, potentially 45,” Simoni said. “So we did this MRI and found that he has a 23-centimeter mass on his colon, which was nearly blocking it,” Simoni said. “So it took us about a month to get him in for a colonoscopy because of the wait times and lack of providers available. We see higher rates of cancers in end-stage, more deaths in veteran status, due to waiting times, inadequate services, and due to demographics.”

He was diagnosed with cancer in January 2024 but only recently underwent surgery to remove the cancerous mass. They are optimistic, but the delay in the removal was due to understaffing. 

If a veteran knows something is off, they need to advocate for the resources they need to get a cancer screening. HunterSeven is one of many non-profits that work to provide resources at no cost to the veteran.

How veterans can reduce the odds of developing cancer

Service members often develop a mindset of ‘I’d rather not know’ or are concerned about being removed from the fight. It’s a deadly game to play when it comes to cancer. 

“If you’re not above the age of 50, you are not a priority for cancer screening,” Simoni said. “If we identify some of these most deadly cancers in early stages, the chance of survival is greatly impacted. So, that’s 77%, compared to 2%. Like, this is why early cancer screening is so important.”

It’s important that veterans be aware of their risk factors and advocate for the proper exams or screenings needed to catch cancers early. However, service members can take other actions to decrease their chances of toxic exposure-related cancers.

For example, don’t load ammunition into a magazine and then throw a dip in with your unwashed hands. Wear the proper gloves while building explosive charges. Wash your hands before you eat. 

Veterans photo

The toxic exposures can lead to heavy metal poisoning, which mimics specific vitamins, leading to a drop in proper levels and turning your bones into sponges. Toxic exposures can lead to chronically low calcium, Vitamin D, magnesium, and B-12 levels. 

If you know you’ll be exposed to known carcinogens, understand that the body gets rid of toxins through breath, urine, stool, and sweat. So it’s essential to get restorative sleep, remain fully hydrated, and have your micro-nutrients at optimal levels through diet. Helpful diet staples include roughage like onions, leeks, garlic, shallots, cabbage, brussels sprouts, and cauliflower. 

Dardia pointed out that many special operations personnel train hard and then blow off steam by drinking. However, alcohol is a group one carcinogen. Instead of alcohol, Dardia recommends taking the supplement Glutathione, which helps the body excrete toxins, biotransforming them from fat-soluble to water-soluble. 

“So you’re soaking in carcinogens all day, and then at night, you’re drinking carcinogens to get to sleep,” Dardia said. “So you’re literally adding gasoline to a fire.”

Just the environment veterans find themselves in can cause disruptions in the body. 

“Your sympathetic nervous system, think of it as a gas pedal in a car. You’re accelerating your nervous system. Literally, you get stuck there. Then you don’t do that whole rest, digest, feed, and breed thing,” Dardia said. “You don’t think or analyze things. You’re literally responding to everything. So that’s what you do, respond to threats in your environment, and that’s what we’re trained to do.”

But, because of the way people are trained, they often don’t realize how bad their health is becoming. Spouses, close friends, and family should advocate for their veterans to detoxify, eat healthy, get good sleep, and seek cancer screenings where appropriate. 

Simoni said she knows plenty of spouses who remind their veterans to get their labs checked, get cancer screenings if warranted, and do many other things that help with early detection.

But, a veteran knows themself better than anyone else. Examples of symptoms to watch out for include a new onset of heavy fatigue, chronic acid reflux, constant headaches, and chronic diarrhea. These are easy to explain away as being dehydrated or not having enough sleep or caffeine. Remember: early cancer detection can be the difference between life and death. 

If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, the Lifeline network is available 24/7 across the United States. Reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling or texting 988 and you’ll be connected to trained counselors.

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