There are numerous intrinsic risks that military servicemembers face, such as the dangers of combat, handling firearms, operating ships and heavy machinery, undersea diving, and aircraft operations. Multiple studies also have identified an increased risk for melanomas and keratinocyte cancers in those who have served on active duty.
Differences in demographics are important to consider given the differences among races in the risks of skin cancers. Important racial demographic differences exist between the US Military and the general US population. Racial demographic differences also exist among the various military branches themselves. The US population is 61.0% White, 20.7% racial minorities (defined as Black or African American, Asian, American Indian or Alaska native, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, multiracial, or unknown), and 18.3% Hispanic or Latino (Hispanic or Latino was not listed as a component of racial minorities).1 According to 2018 data, the US Military population is 52.9% White, 31.0% racial minorities, and 16.1% Hispanic or Latino.2 The percentage of White military members was highest in the US Marine Corps (58.4%) and lowest in the US Navy (46.5%). The percentage of racial minorities was highest in the US Navy (38.0%) and lowest in the US Marine Corps (20.0%).2 The percentage of Hispanic and Latino military members was highest in the US Marine Corps (21.6%) and lowest in the US Air Force (14.5%).2
Melanoma in Military Members
It is estimated that the annual incidence rate of melanoma in the United States is 27 per 100,000 individuals for non-Hispanic Whites, 5 per 100,000 for Hispanics, and 1 per 100,000 for Black individuals and Asians/Pacific Islanders.3 Three studies have reviewed melanoma incidence in relation to service in the US Military.
A 2011 retrospective tumor registries study of US veterans aged 45 years or older demonstrated increased incidences of melanoma compared with the general population.4 With age, the melanoma incidence per 100,000 person-years increased in White veterans compared to their civilian counterparts (aged 45 to 49 years, 33.62 vs 27.49; aged 50 to 54 years, 49.76 vs 32.18; aged 55 to 59 years, 178.48 vs 39.17).4 An increased melanoma incidence of 62% also was seen in active-duty servicemembers aged 18 to 56 years compared to their age-matched civilian peers in a 2014 retrospective cohort study.5
Melanoma rates also vary depending on military service branch. Across 3 separate studies, service in the US Air Force was associated with the highest risk for melanoma development. A surveillance report of cancer incidence in active-duty US Armed Forces personnel between 2000 and 2011 conducted by the Defense Medical Surveillance System showed an incidence rate (per 100,000 person-years) for melanoma of 10.5 in all services, and a rate of 15.5 in the US Air Force vs 8.6 in the US Army, further highlighting the disparity between the services.6 The 2014 study also demonstrated a melanoma incidence rate of 17.80 in active-duty US Air Force personnel compared to 9.53 in active-duty US Army personnel.5 Among US Air Force active-duty personnel, one study showed a melanoma incidence rate (per 100,000 person-years) of 7.59 for men and 8.98 for women compared to 6.25 and 5.46, respectively, in US Army soldiers.4
Keratinocyte Cancers in Military Members
Although less well studied than melanoma, keratinocyte-derived skin cancers represent a major source of disease burden both during and after active-duty service. In a retrospective chart review of dermatology patients seen at the 86th Combat Support Hospital at Ibn Sina Hospital in Baghdad, Iraq, during a 6-month period in 2008, 8% of 2696 total visits were identified to be due to skin cancer, with the overwhelming majority being for keratinocyte cancers.7 A 1993 retrospective chart review of World War II veterans referred for Mohs micrographic surgery showed a considerably higher incidence in those who served in the Pacific Theater compared to those who served in the European Theater. Despite having approximately equal characteristics—age, skin type, and cumulative time spent outdoors—between the 2 groups, military servicemembers deployed to the Pacific represented 66% of the patients with basal cell carcinoma and 68% of the patients with squamous cell carcinoma.8
There are many factors related to military service that are likely to contribute to the increased risk for skin cancer. Based on a review of the literature, we have found an increased exposure to UV radiation, low utilization of sun-protective strategies, and low overall education regarding the risks for UV exposure to be the primary contributors to increased risks for skin cancer.
UV exposure is the primary mitigatable risk factor for developing melanoma and keratinocyte cancers.9,10 In a 2015 study of 212 military servicemembers returning from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, 77% reported spending more than 4 hours per day working directly in the bright sun, with 64% spending more than 75% of the average day in the bright sun.11 A 1984 study of World War II veterans diagnosed with melanoma also showed that 34% of those with melanoma had prior deployments to the tropics compared to 6% in age-matched controls.12