Doctor talking to patient

What Should Veterans Know About Lung Cancer?

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths worldwide. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), nearly 8,000 Veterans are diagnosed and treated at VA for lung cancer each year and an estimated 800,000 are at risk due to age, smoking habits and environmental exposures during and after military service.

VA estimates there are around 800,000 Veterans who should be screened for lung cancer due to increased risk related to age, a history of smoking and environmental exposures during or after military service. 

Learn more about lung cancer, how to minimize your risk and what resources are available to help Veterans take a proactive approach to their health and well-being.

What Is Lung Cancer?

Lung cancer forms in tissues of the lung, usually in the cells that line the air passages. There are two main types of lung cancer: small cell lung cancer and non-small cell lung cancer. Non-small cell lung cancer is the more common type.

Who Is At Risk?

Lung cancer can affect anyone, but there are certain factors that increase your risk of developing it.

  • Smoking: People who smoke have the greatest risk of developing lung cancer. The earlier you start, the longer you do it and the more you smoke, the greater your risk.
  • Secondhand smoke: When you inhale the smoke that comes from a cigarette or that someone breathes out, you’re exposed to the same cancer-causing agents as smokers just in smaller amounts.
  • Family history of lung cancer: Whether it’s because smoking can run in families or due to exposure to secondhand smoke, people with a parent, sibling or child with lung cancer have an increased risk of the disease.
  • Being exposed to certain carcinogens: Exposure to carcinogens such as asbestos, arsenic, chromium, soot and tar has been linked to increased risk for lung cancer. If you are unsure if you may have been exposed to one or more of these substances during your service, check out VA’s information on hazardous materials.
  • Being exposed to radiation: Exposure to radiation can increase your risk for lung cancer and includes things like
    • radiation therapy on your chest for another type of cancer like breast cancer or Hodgkin lymphoma
    • certain imaging tests and scans, such as CT scans
  • Being exposed to radon gas: Unsafe levels of radon can accumulate in any building, including homes.

What Can I Do to Reduce My Risk for Lung Cancer?

Hands breaking cigarette in halfThere’s no way to totally prevent lung cancer, but there are several ways to reduce your risk.

  • Don’t start smoking. If you’ve never smoked, don’t start.
  • Quit smoking. Even after smoking for many years, quitting can significantly lower your risk of developing lung cancer. Talk to your doctor if you’re ready to develop a plan to quit. Check out Make a Plan You Can Stick To: Quit Smoking Today for tips to get started.
  • Avoid secondhand smoke as best you can. If you live or work with smokers, figure out ways to avoid the smoke. Can they only smoke outside? Can you help them quit?
  • Test your home for radon. High levels of radon can be fixed to make your home safer. You can reach out to your local public health department to learn more.
  • Try to avoid carcinogens at work. Take precautions, such as wearing a face mask, if you are exposed to toxic chemicals throughout your work.

What Are the Symptoms?

Sometimes lung cancer doesn’t cause any signs or symptoms. For example, it may be found during a chest x-ray done for something else. However, if you do have symptoms, they may include:

  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • A cough that doesn’t go away or gets worse over time
  • Trouble breathing or wheezing
  • Blood in your mucus coughed up from your lungs
  • Loss of appetite
  • Hoarseness
  • Weight loss or fatigue for no known reason
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Swelling in the face or veins in the neck

What Steps Should I Take?

Veterans have a higher rate of lung cancer than the general population, so lung cancer awareness and access to quality resources are extremely important. VA estimates there are around 800,000 Veterans who should be screened for lung cancer due to increased risk related to age, a history of smoking and environmental exposures during or after military service.  Here are some steps you can take now:

  • Talk to your health care provider about your risk and about getting a screening. Screenings are done to look for cancer before a person has any symptoms. When abnormal tissue or cancer is found early, it may be easier to treat.
  • Check out VA’s Lung Precision Oncology Program. This program aims to give VA clinicians a range of tools to proactively address and treat lung cancer in Veterans through things like prioritizing screening for high-risk Veterans, offering genetic testing, improving access to clinical trials and more.
  • Find out if you can get disability compensation and other benefits connected to your service. If you were exposed to harmful chemicals or other hazardous materials while serving, you may qualify. Lung cancer, for example, can develop after exposure to certain harmful chemicals such as asbestos, chromium, smoke and more. For more specific information, check out Consider Your Unique Health Care Needs: Health Conditions Related to Your Service.
  • Learn more about lung cancer risks, prevention and treatments. Visit the National Cancer Institute and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Between high-quality resources through your VA health care and a proactive personal approach, you can reduce your risk for lung cancer and its potential harm.

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