SOCOM calls for special ops veterans to report cancer screenings

The memo announces a comprehensive study evaluating the cancer risk within the SOF community.
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Special operations soldiers
Special Tactics operators engage enemies during a training scenario in Green Valley, Arizona, Jan. 25, 2023. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Carly Kavish)

U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) sent a memo to all special operations forces (SOF) veterans, calling for retired and active duty service members alike to report any cancer diagnosis they have, or might receive, and to complete routine cancer screening tests. 

The memo, signed by SOCOM’s commander, Gen. Bryan Fenton, and Command Sgt. Maj. Shane Shorter, was sent on March 5 and recently posted to social media channels. In cooperation with the Defense Health Agency, it announces a comprehensive study evaluating the cancer risk within the SOF community. 

“One intent of this study is to determine if it would be beneficial to request support from the military health system to incorporate advanced screening technologies into routine care appointments,” said SOCOM Deputy Director of the Office of Communications James Gregory in a written statement. 

Gregory said the current cancer mitigation and early warning surveillance efforts are based on “national guidelines and individual risk.” If a SOF member is diagnosed with cancer, they will provide all necessary resources through the military and their network of “benevolent organizations.” 

SOCOM is encouraging men to complete routine prostate screenings and colonoscopies and women to complete colonoscopies, pap smears, breast exams, and mammograms. All of these exams and screenings are essential for early detection of cancer, which is vital for effectively treating any type of cancer. 

Chelsey Simoni is the co-founder of the HunterSeven Foundation (H7F), a nonprofit that works to help veterans receive the medical help they need and provide early detection of cancer and other issues prevalent for veterans. Simoni said there’s a problem with the current cancer screening criteria.

“There are no clinical practice guidelines for cancer screening in post-911 service members on active duty or veterans. We see higher rates of cancers in end-stage, more deaths in veteran status, due to wait times, inadequate services, and demographics,” Simoni said. “If you’re not above the age of 50, you are not a priority for cancer screening. The healthy deployer effect: the visual appearance is young and otherwise healthy, so you’re not at risk.”

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According to HunterSeven’s research, there are high rates of brain tumors in U.S. Navy SEALs stationed on the East Coast, but no routine screening is available for that type of cancer. Most SEALs are much younger and fitter than the average person who meets cancer screening criteria, much like other service members under the SOF umbrella. 

SOCOM said they are aware of advanced screening options outside of the military “provided by our benevolent organizations.” Simoni said Special Forces Charitable Trust, TF Dagger, and HunterSeven are examples of organizations that can help, but their ability to help veterans is limited. 

“Despite having a long list of pending cancer screenings, and limited funding, we encourage those at risk to reach out to HunterSeven or one of our partners about screening, risk factors, and resources,” Simoni said.

Rob Newson is a cancer survivor and founding member of multiple U.S. Navy Special Warfare commands. He’s the current Military Special Operations Family Collaborative Cancer Task Force chair and a champion of advocating for solutions for cancer within the SOF community. 

He was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer in 2017, but it was caught in the early stages of development. After an aggressive response with surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and two years of hormone therapy, Newson said, “All is well. Knock on wood.” 

However, it’s vital that current and former SOF personnel add their screenings, exams, and diagnoses to their Department of Defense or U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs medical records. By doing so, the study can fast forward through years of surveys and directly pull necessary information from federal medical records. 

“The ship moves very slowly. Bureaucracies grind things into dust. […]. There’s this burbling problem where people are getting sick and dying, data lags, and the government response lags,” Newson said. “Then there’s some kind of legislation that is initial but not sufficient. Then at some point, there’s more comprehensive legislation, and so we saw that with Agent Orange.”

He pointed out other toxic exposure research and treatments that have been enacted, like Desert Storm Syndrome. But, to get legislation moving, the government needs empirical data to prove cancer is a problem that correlates to military service in special operations. 

“Usually, just like the rest of the military, the cancer is aggressive, usually at an early age, often missed because guys and gals are fit, healthy, and don’t fit the normal screening criteria,” Newson said. “So, it’s often found at stage four and is terminal, and guys are fighting for their life and usually losing. The community has had just a tremendous amount of cancer.”

Newson explained there’s another aspect of the problem with early detection. The type of individuals that SOCOM attracts generally feel “bulletproof” and don’t notice the often obscure early symptoms. They also, generally speaking, do not want to be taken away from their unit’s mission to address medical symptoms they often explain away as wear and tear from serving in a high-caliber unit. 

“Cancer is a scary thing. It’s a scary word, and your first thought when you hear you have cancer is, ‘I’m gonna die,’ because that’s what we associate it with. But my cancer was found very early. I had a great team down in Miami, and we were super aggressive,” Newson said. “We probably went further with chemotherapy than we needed to, but it was like, let’s destroy the enemy.”

Newson says there’s a reason SOCOM is spearheading the effort. They have better funding than the rest of the military, and Newson said it’s a “very small, responsive, and agile community.” 

“I think SOF guys will answer the call a little bit quicker than other military posts with respect to, this is about your teammates, get your medical records to the VA and help the future guy who may be able to avoid cancer or find it much earlier than most of us did,” Newson said. 

Note: This story has been updated to correct an inaccurate figure.

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