Military Dermatology

Skin Cancer in Military Pilots: A Special Population With Special Risk Factors

In partnership with the Association of Military Dermatologists

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Military pilots may be at greater risk for skin cancer, particularly melanoma. Military-specific studies are limited, but skin cancer rates in civilian pilots and aircrews have previously been examined. Risk factors for all pilots may include exposure to UV radiation (UVR) at higher altitudes, cosmic radiation, and electromagnetic energy from cockpit instruments, as well as altered sleep-wake cycles. The study of aviation-specific risk factors for skin cancer is relevant to all pilots and dermatologists who care for them.

Practice Points

  • Military and civilian pilots have an increased risk for melanoma and nonmelanoma skin cancer, likely due to unique occupational exposures.
  • We recommend annual skin cancer screening for all pilots to help assess their individual risk.
  • Pilots should be educated on their increased risk for skin cancer and encouraged to use sun-protective measures during their flying duties and leisure activities.


 

References

Military dermatologists are charged with caring for a diverse population of active-duty members, civilian dependents, and military retirees. Although certain risk factors for cutaneous malignancies are common in all of these groups, the active-duty population experiences unique exposures to be considered when determining their risk for skin cancer. One subset that may be at a higher risk is military pilots who fly at high altitudes on irregular schedules in austere environments. Through the unparalleled comradeship inherent in many military units, pilots “hear” from their fellow pilots that they are at increased risk for skin cancer. Do their occupational exposures translate into increased risk for cutaneous malignancy? This article will survey the literature pertaining to pilots and skin cancer so that all dermatologists may better care for this unique population.

Epidemiology

Anecdotally, we have observed basal cell carcinoma in pilots in their 20s and early 30s, earlier than would be expected in an otherwise healthy prescreened military population.1 Woolley and Hughes2 published a case report of skin cancer in a young military aviator. The patient was a 32-year-old male helicopter pilot with Fitzpatrick skin type II and no personal or family history of skin cancer who was diagnosed with a periocular nodular basal cell carcinoma. He deployed to locations with high UV radiation (UVR) indices, and his vacation time also was spent in such areas.2 UV radiation exposure and Fitzpatrick skin type are known risk factors across occupations, but are there special exposures that come with military aviation service?

To better understand the risk for malignancy in this special population, the US Air Force examined the rates of all cancer types among a cohort of flying versus nonflying officers.3 Aviation personnel showed increased incidence of testicular, bladder, and all-site cancers combined. Noticeably absent was a statistically significant increased risk for malignant melanoma (MM) and nonmelanoma skin cancer (NMSC). Other epidemiological studies examined the incidence rates of MM in the US Armed Forces compared with age- and race-matched civilian populations and showed mixed results: 2 studies showed increased risk,4,5 while a third showed decreased risk.6 Despite finding opposite results of MM rates in military members versus the civilian population, 2 of these studies showed US Air Force members to have higher rates of MM than those in the US Army or Navy.4,6 Interestingly, the air force has the highest number of pilots among all the services, with 4000 more pilots than the army and navy.7 Further studies are needed to determine if the higher air force MM rates occur in pilots.

Although there are mixed and limited data pertaining to military flight crews, there is more robust literature concerning civilian flight personnel. One meta-analysis pooled studies related to cancer risk in cabin crews and civil and military pilots.8 In military pilots, they found a standardized incidence ratio (SIR) of 1.43 (95% confidence interval [CI], 1.09-1.87) for MM and 1.80 (95% CI, 1.25-2.80) for NMSC. The SIRs were higher for male cabin attendants (3.42 and 7.46, respectively) and civil pilots (2.18 and 1.88, respectively). They also found the most common cause of mortality in civilian cabin crews was AIDS, possibly explaining the higher SIRs for all types of malignancy in that population.8 In the United States, many civilian pilots previously were military pilots9 who likely served in the military for at least 10 years.10 A 2015 meta-analysis of 19 studies of more than 266,000 civil pilots and aircrew members found an SIR for MM of 2.22 (95% CI, 1.67-2.93) for civil pilots and 2.09 (95% CI, 1.67-2.62) for aircrews, stating the risk for MM is at least twice that of the general population.11

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