What Happens If You Get Cancer While You’re in the Military?

What Happens If You Get Cancer While You’re in the Military?

Joining the military is a major life decision. When you commit yourself to the US Armed Forces, you’ll also receive a commitment in return. If you are diagnosed with cancer while in the military, you can count on medical care and benefits, particularly if your cancer is caused or aggravated by your military service or activities.

However, the situation can get a little more complicated if you develop cancer after you leave the military. Let’s look at what happens if you get cancer in the military and when you may qualify for disability benefits.

What Are the Causes of Cancer in the Military?

Cancer of any type is extremely serious. Cancer can occur anywhere in the body and develops when cells don’t grow and die normally. If left unchecked, cancer can spread throughout the body, leading to various health complications, including chronic diseases and death.

Cancer symptoms can vary heavily depending on its unique type and location in the body. Some of the most common symptoms of cancer include:

  • Bumps or lumps anywhere in the body
  • Thickening skin
  • Persistent coughing or indigestion
  • Changes bathroom habits
  • Bleeding
  • Fatigue
  • Mental symptoms such as mood swings, insomnia, etc.

Some of the most common types of cancer diagnosed in military service members include prostate, colorectal, urinary, bladder, skin, lung, and bronchial cancers.

If you serve in the military, you may be exposed to various chemicals, radiation, and other environmental hazards. These hazards can increase your likelihood of developing one type of cancer or another depending on your service record, your time in the military, your genetic predisposition toward certain cancers, and other factors. 

Random mutations may also cause cancer (and are the most important risk factor for cancer development). Some types of cancers arise when cells are born with mutations that prevent them from dying off when they should. This is why cancer can occur to anyone at any time, though some cancers are more common in older individuals.

If You Get Cancer in the Military, Are You Discharged?

If you develop cancer in the military, you are not automatically discharged or employed. Instead, the military takes care of you for your service period.

For example, say you develop cancer one year into a four-year contract. For the remainder of your contract, the military will pay for your cancer treatments and allow you to complete your duties as you are physically able to do so. If your cancer symptoms are mild, you can continue in your current position while receiving cancer treatments, including medication and therapy.

However, once you leave the military, you will only qualify for VA compensation and medical benefits if your military service caused or aggravated your cancer. If your cancer is due to a random mutation or a non-service-connected cause, you will not necessarily qualify for disability benefits and monthly compensation.

Potential Service Connections for Cancer

To recover disability benefits for cancer, you develop in the military; you must receive service connection. Service connection proves that your cancer was caused or aggravated directly or indirectly because of your time in the military (specifically, an in-service event, illness, or injury).

For example, if you worked around nuclear reactors on aircraft carriers for several decades, then developed cancer associated with radiation exposure, you can prove service connection between your military service and your current cancer diagnosis. That would qualify you for disability benefits and ongoing compensation.

Let’s look at some of the most common service connections associated with cancer in military Veterans.

Agent Orange and Chemical Exposure

Agent Orange was a tactical herbicide used during the Vietnam War and in surrounding military theaters between the 1960s and ‘80s. Many Veterans who served in Vietnam between 1962 and 1975 developed cancers such as lung cancer, prostate cancer, Hodgkin’s disease, and leukemia.

These cancers are now positively correlated with Agent Orange exposure. Because of the scientific information supporting this conclusion, the VA has drawn up a presumptive conditions list, which includes the above cancers and other chronic conditions.

Veterans who served in the Vietnam War and have one of the presumptive conditions on the list do not need to prove a medical nexus between their injury diagnoses and military service. They automatically qualify for benefits.

If your cancer or other illness is not on the presumptive condition list, you can still receive disability benefits for Agent Orange exposure. However, you must prove that you served in or around Agent Orange deployment sites and that your medical condition did not begin until after exposure to the chemical.

Radiation Exposure

Radiation exposure is a major health hazard and a risk factor for cancer development. Many Veterans may have developed cancer because of being exposed to radiation on an ongoing basis, such as during nuclear testing, serving on a nuclear submarine or aircraft carrier, etc.

Radiation exposure is linked to many cancers, from stomach to bone to liver. If you developed one of these cancers during or after your time in the military and were exposed to radiation, you may qualify for disability benefits. You must prove that you served at least once in or around irradiated areas to receive service connection.

Secondary Service Connections

In addition to direct service connections, you may qualify for disability benefits if you can prove secondary service connection. Secondary service connection links a cancer diagnosis to a direct service-connected injury or illness.

This is less common with cancer, as most other illnesses or injuries don’t directly cause cancer alone. Some exceptions may apply for injuries or illnesses that are chronic, and that cause long-lasting health complications which may impact cell replication. 

For more information about the possibility of this benefit, contact knowledgeable Veterans law representatives to determine your options and the kind of evidence you may need to collect and present. 

Can You Join the Military If You Already Have Cancer?

Except for basal cell carcinoma, most types of cancer will prevent you from joining the military if you have a current diagnosis upon applying to your chosen branch. Furthermore, the military might deny your application if you have benign tumors because those tumors could reawaken into interactive cancer cells later.

Getting Disability Benefits for Cancer in the Military

Suppose you get cancer while in the military; you will automatically receive medical care and assistance. But after you are discharged, you can only get disability benefits for your cancer if you receive service connection.

To get that, you’ll need to file a disability benefits application with the assistance of Veterans law attorneys. Your attorneys can help you through the process from start to finish by:

  • Helping you understand the disability benefits application sequence in which forms you need to fill out
  • Helping you gather the evidence you need to substantiate your claim. This can include lay statements from friends or family members or fellow service members, journal entries, and much more
  • Helping you secure a nexus letter from a licensed physician. A nexus letter is the professional medical opinion of a doctor or primary care provider stating that they believe your cancer diagnosis is due to your time in the military. While this letter is not necessary, it may help prove that your cancer is service-connected
  • And more

Furthermore, if your disability benefits application was previously denied, Veterans law attorneys can help you appeal the initial decision and potentially get a disability rating. Depending on your cancer symptoms and other illnesses or injuries, your disability rating can range from 0% to 100%. A higher disability rating means you’ll receive more disability compensation each month, plus get access to additional medical support and care. 

Contact Berry Law

If you get cancer while in the military, you should automatically qualify for disability benefits if that cancer developed because of service-connected exposure, illness, or injury. It can be tough to get started on the path to disability benefits, though, especially without legal support.

That’s where Berry Law can help. Our experienced, educated attorneys can help you apply for disability compensation from the VA and help you understand your options for medical benefits. Contact us today to learn more.


Cancer | WHO

Cancer |

Cancer Care for Military Service Members | American Society of Clinical Oncology

Berry Law

The attorneys at Berry Law are dedicated to helping injured Veterans. With extensive experience working with VA disability claims, Berry Law can help you with your disability appeals.

This material is for informational purposes only. It does not create an attorney-client relationship between the Firm and the reader, and does not constitute legal advice. Legal advice must be tailored to the specific circumstances of each case, and the contents of this blog are not a substitute for legal counsel.

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