How are Veterans Affected by Prostate Cancer?

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: October 2017 | Last updated: February 2021

Prostate cancer affects men of different ages, backgrounds, and family histories. What causes a man’s prostate cancer is usually unknown, but there are risk factors an individual can possess that increase the chances that they will develop the condition. These risk factors do not cause prostate cancer but may help contribute to the development of the underlying cancer-promoting mechanisms that lead to the condition. Some of these risk factors are modifiable, meaning they can be changed. These include things like smoking or obesity. Other risk factors, such as family history, race, or age, cannot be changed and are considered non-modifiable.

Veterans are in a unique risk group, as certain past members of the military may have an additional, non-modifiable risk factor: exposure to Agent Orange or other herbicides during their military service.

What is Agent Orange?

Agent Orange (AO) was an herbicide used between 1962-1975, during the Korean and Vietnam wars. Millions of gallons of Agent Orange were sprayed onto trees, plants, crops, and other vegetation during this time. Veterans who were in Vietnam, on Thai Air Force bases, or in the Korean Demilitarized Zone during this time may have been exposed to Agent Orange. Additionally, men who worked on or flew C-123 Aircraft used in these military campaigns may have also been exposed to the chemical.1

Many years after these conflicts, it was discovered that Agent Orange had dangerous chemicals within it that could affect the health of those exposed to it. One such chemical, known as dioxin, was found to be a carcinogen (a compound that can lead to cancer). Dioxin, also referred to as TCDD, has been linked to an increased risk of developing soft tissue sarcoma, Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Hodgkin’s disease, and other serious conditions.2 Since many Veterans of the Korean and Vietnam Wars are reaching ages more commonly associated with the development of prostate cancer, several studies have focused on determining the link, if any, that exists between Agent Orange and the development of prostate cancer specifically.

What does the research say?

Several studies have strengthened the link between Agent Orange exposure and the development of prostate cancer later on. However, the type of prostate cancer thought to be associated with Agent Orange exposure is specific. Overall, when compared to men who haven’t been exposed to AO, Veterans with exposure have been found to have a similar risk of developing low-grade prostate cancer.2,3 The most concerning point of many of these studies though, is that although low-grade prostate cancer risk may not be different, men with Agent Orange exposure seem to have a higher risk of developing more aggressive prostate cancer than men without exposure.

Data from one large study suggested that there could be as high as a 75% increase in the risk of developing life-threatening prostate cancer for men with AO exposure. Also, not only are men with AO exposure more frequently diagnosed with life-threatening prostate cancer but on average, they are being diagnosed at younger ages than their non-exposed counterparts. Some studies have estimated that this age difference could be as many as five years younger at diagnosis when exposed to the chemical.2,3

If you are concerned about your potential exposure to Agent Orange or know that you have been exposed to the chemical, alert your doctor as soon as possible. You may be classified as having a higher risk of developing prostate cancer, especially high-grade, more aggressive prostate cancer. Because of this, you may need to be screened more frequently, or pursue more aggressive diagnostic procedures or treatment options.

Contacting the US Department of Veterans Affairs

Veterans who are diagnosed with prostate cancer and were exposed to Agent Orange or other herbicides during military service do not have to prove a connection between their prostate cancer and service to be eligible to receive VA health care and disability compensation. Veterans who may have been exposed to herbicides during a military operation or as a result of testing, transporting, or spraying herbicides for military purposes regardless of service in areas other than Vietnam or Korea may also be eligible. The first step is to contact the VA for an AO registry exam.

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