Military Service and Breast Cancer: What’s the Connection?

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • A recent article in the online Army Times notes that “…breast cancer [is] striking relatively young military women at alarming rates, [and] male service members, veterans and their dependents are at risk, as well.” Is it true our military personnel have to worry about breast cancer – as well as bombs and bullets?


    This weekend marks Veterans Day, the day we honor all of those who’ve served our country in the military.

    And while you may think of it as simply another long weekend, it’s actually a time I hope we could all stop and consider those who’ve put themselves in harm’s way for our country.

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    I’m not a huge flag-waver; I’d say I’m about as patriotic as the average American – which is to say pretty avid every four years during the Olympics, and pretty lackadaisical the rest of the time. It’s all too easy to take the privileges we enjoy here for granted; and I admit I do so, most of the time.

    But I’m the daughter of a decorated WWII veteran, and the wife of a decorated, wounded Vietnam veteran. Like me, neither of the two men in my life were flag-wavers; in fact, it was nearly impossible to get them to talk about their war experiences – which I’ve found is usually the case with those who’ve truly experienced the hell of combat.

    Still, I like to take a moment to honor everyone who’s donated 2, 4, 6, or more years of his or her life to keeping us safe and secure. And this year, I’m going to send a good karma to the men and women currently serving in the military, in hopes that they’ll stay cancer-free – despite what might be their slightly increased risk for a breast cancer diagnosis.

    The Army Times story calling out the “alarming rates” of breast cancer among military personnel, both men and women, turns out to be somewhat overstated, thankfully. Not due to any faulty reporting – but simply in the way facts can be presented in different ways.

    Reporter Jon Anderson, in his article “Alarming Breast Cancer Rates Among Troops,” says that “military women are 20 percent to 40 percent more likely to get the disease than other women in the same age groups.”

    Now, at first blush, that does indeed seem alarming. But looked at more closely, the study Anderson was drawing from, which compared data from the National Cancer Database and the military’s own cancer database, showed that for every 100,000 women in the civilian population, an average of 32 would be diagnosed with breast cancer; while in the military population, that number is 41.1 – a 28% increase.

    That works out to an additional 9.1 cases of breast cancer per 100,000 military women. Alarming? Yes, in that all cases of cancer are alarming. But statistically speaking, this .009% increased absolute risk is small.

    And, according to Col. (Dr.) John Peoples, author of the study Anderson drew his data from, readily explainable.

    According to Peoples, breast cancer tends to be caught earlier in military women, due to regular mandatory screening at an earlier age.

  • “This is a mandatory screening program that most women [outside the military] wouldn’t be undergoing,” notes Peoples. “Compared to national data, the military diagnoses breast cancer sooner, and the outcomes among breast cancer patients tends to be dramatically better.” (Drummond, 2012)

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    Thank goodness for that.

    Now, not to say there aren’t other workplace issues here that could very well be increasing military women’s breast cancer risk. In the general population, women who take birth control pills for long periods; who work a night shift; or who work in the industrial sector, with its exposure to possible carcinogens, are at increased risk for breast cancer.

    Military women are probably more likely to fall into one or more of these categories than women in the general population, thus increasing their risk.

    And there does appear to be a “cancer cluster” of male breast cancer cases centered around Camp Lejeune, the Marine Corps’ main East Coast base in Jacksonville, North Carolina.

    But those who’ve lived and worked at the base over the years appear to be at increased risk for many types of cancer, not just breast cancer; experts are currently focusing on contaminated drinking water at the base as a possible cause.

    If you’re serving in the military, thank you; we rely on your courage and strength to keep us safe. And I’m glad that military medical personnel are “ever vigilant” in their breast cancer screening, so that you’ll be safe, too – from the ravages of advanced breast cancer.


    Drummond, K. (2012, October 05). Does the military have a breast cancer crisis? not quite. Retrieved from

    Anderson, J. (2012, October 01). Alarming breast cancer rates among troops. Retrieved from  

Published On: November 10, 2012