Unsung Heroes of America’s Military Face Increased Breast Cancer Risk

As a journalist, I’ve had the honor of covering our troops and veterans for two decades.

And with Veterans’ Day just around the corner, it seems an appropriate time to salute the unsung heroes of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: America’s women in uniform.

Since 9/11, approximately 300,000 women have deployed. One of those heroes is Marisa Strock (pictured at left), an Army veteran who I have profiled twice for Newsweek.

Marissa, who as part of a Humvee crew in Iraq lost her legs in an IED (improvised explosive device) blast, is an extraordinary person.

Despite her nearly fatal injuries, Marissa has pushed on with her life. She’s shown remarkable resilience, courage and optimism.

She’s not unlike a lot of cancer patients I know.

But why am I talking about our brave female veterans on my CancerConnect blog? Because there has been a spike in breast cancer among America’s female fighters over the last decade.

It isn’t widely known, but studies of women in the U.S. military show that they now have higher rates of breast cancer than women in the general population. There is considerable debate among researchers about how much breast cancer is on the rise in this group.

But it appears to be a significant increase.

Dr. Richard Clapp, a cancer expert at Boston University who also works with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where he focuses on military breast cancer, recently told the Army Times: “U.S. military women are 20 percent to 40 percent more likely to get breast cancer than civilian women in the same age groups.”

Why is this happening?

A study on Cancer Incidence in the U.S. Military Population concludes that this unwelcome spike is largely the result of the fact women in our military are more likely to be exposed to chemicals that may be related to breast cancer.

Other risk factors that increase their chances of getting breast cancer include long-term use of oral contraceptives and nighttime shift-work.

But military researchers are currently developing a breast cancer vaccine that is showing remarkable results in clinical trials.

Dr. Elizabeth Mittendorf, at MD Anderson Cancer Center, and Army Col. George Peoples, from Brooke Army Medical Center, have been working on this vaccine, known as E75, since the 90s.

They say it targets breast cancer patients who’ve been treated and are in remission, and can reduce the risk of recurrence by 50 percent.

Military medical researchers are also starting trials to develop vaccines that can protect women from ovarian and uterine cancers.

It’s comforting to know that military research is leading to advances that will help our unsung heroes – America’s women in uniform – and all women with cancer.

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