Risk Factors and Management of Skin Cancer Among Active-Duty Servicemembers and Veterans

Author and Disclosure Information

Active-duty servicemembers of the US Military experience unique exposures that should be taken into consideration when determining their risk for melanoma and nonmelanoma skin cancer. Members of the Association of Military Dermatologists participated in a virtual roundtable discussion in April 2020. They discussed risk factors for skin cancer, diagnosis via teledermatology during the coronavirus pandemic, and surgical treatment. The roundtable proceedings are jointly published by Cutis and Federal Practitioner.



Melanoma Risk for Servicemembers

Dr. Dunn: Active-duty jobs are quite diverse. We have had almost every civilian occupation category—everything from clerical to food service to outdoor construction workers. Federal service and active-duty military service could lead to assignments that involve high sunlight exposure and subsequently higher risk for melanoma and nonmelanoma skin cancer.

Dr. Miller: I found 2 articles on the topic. The first published in June 2018 reviewed melanoma and nonmelanoma skin cancers in the military.1 Riemenschneider and colleagues1 looked at 9 studies. Statistically, there was increased risk of melanoma associated with service and/or prisoner-of-war status. In World War II, they found tropical environments had the highest risk. And the highest rates were in the US Air Force.

The other article provided US Department of Defense data on skin cancer incidence rates, incidence rates of malignant melanoma in relation to years of military service overall, and the rates for differing military occupational groups.2 The researchers demonstrated that fixed-wing pilots and crew members had the highest rates of developing melanoma. The general trend was that the incidence rate was exponentially higher with more missions flown in relation to years of active service, which I thought was rather interesting.

For other occupational categories, the rate increase was not as great as those involved in aviation. Yes, it’s probably related to exposure. Flying at 40,000 feet on a transcontinental airplane trip is equivalent to the radiation dosage of a chest X-ray. Given all the training time and operational flying for the Air Force, it is anticipated that that mutagenic radiation would increase rates. An aircraft does not offer a lot of protection, especially in the cockpit.

We just had the anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission. Those astronauts received the equivalent of about 40 chest X-rays going to the moon and back. Exposure to UV and at higher altitudes cosmic radiation explains why we would see that more in Air Force personnel.

Dr. Bandino: At high altitude there is less ozone protecting you, although the shielding in a cockpit is better in modern aircraft. As an Air Force member, that was one of the first things I thought about was that an aviator has increased skin cancer risk. But it’s apt to think of military service in general as an occupational risk because there are so many contingency operations and deployments. Regarding sun exposure, sunscreen is provided nowadays and there is more sun awareness, but there is still a stigma and reluctance to apply the sunscreen. It leaves people’s skin feeling greasy, which is not ideal when one has to handle a firearm. It can also get in someone’s eyes and affect vision and performance during combat operations. In other words, there are many reasons that would reduce the desire to wear sunscreen and therefore increase exposure to the elements.


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