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Study Shows Troops At High Risk For Skin Cancer

Marine Aircraft Group 41 Detachment Alpha, 4th Marine Air Wing, stand at atte...

Credit: Department of Defense

Above: Marine Aircraft Group 41 Detachment Alpha, 4th Marine Air Wing, stand at attention during a change of command on Marine Corps Air Station Camp Pendleton, Calif., May 25, 2018.

The evidence continues to show military troops are at higher risk to develop skin cancer. The elevated risk for skin cancer among the military has been known for a while, but a new study shows the extent.

The paper published in the June issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology pulls together nine studies on various military populations, from recent samples — back to troops who served in World War II.

“The scary thing is that even in the normal population, the risk is one in five, so one in five individuals will get a skin cancer in their life,” said Dr. William Groff, a board-certified dermatologist. "And we can’t forget that the most-deadly form of skin cancer is melanoma. One person dies every hour from melanoma.”

The report says U.S. service personnel have been deployed to areas where they face increased exposure to the sun's UV rays, whether it was in Iraq or Afghanistan during recent conflicts, or in the South Pacific during World War II. But studies have found Air Force personnel are actually most vulnerable; Groff attributed that to pilots at high altitude. The study suggests exhaust from jet engines may also be a factor in future skin cancers.

Groff also spent 11 years in the Navy as a flight surgeon. The lack of consistent policy to protect troops from sun damage is also to blame, he said.

“Compounding this is the fact that, as far as I know from talking to people I know who are still active duty, they are not issued any sunblock or sun protection,” he said.

Troops often buy sunscreen on their own or rely on care packages from home when they’re deployed. Uniforms aren’t always designed to cover exposed skin, like arms, heads and the back of the neck, Groff said.

Veterans need to be aware of the risk, which is highest for white males over 50. Groff said they need to see a doctor if they see changes in moles, he said, and if they can't see a doctor right away.

"Take a picture with your phone. Save it and maybe take a picture a few weeks, a couple months later, and see if there is any change,” he said.

Beyond sun exposure, the authors suggest more research is needed into factors like exposure to certain chemicals like PCBs and equipment on board older Navy vessels.

A new study pulls together the research into the elevated risk of skin cancer among military populations, from World War II veterans to those who served in Iraq.


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Photo of Steve Walsh

Steve Walsh
Military Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover military and veterans issues for KPBS and American Homefront, a partnership of public radio stations and NPR. I cover issues ranging from delpoying troops along the California border to efforts to lower suicide rates among veterans.

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