According to Military.com Former Air Force and Navy fighter pilots are calling on the military to begin cancer screenings for aviators as young as 30 because of an increase in deaths from the disease that they suspect may be tied to radiation emitted in the cockpit.
“We are dropping like flies in our 50s from aggressive cancers,” said retired Air Force Col. Eric Nelson, a former F-15E Strike Eagle weapons officer. He cited prostate and esophageal cancers, lymphoma, and glioblastomas that have struck fellow pilots he knew, commanded or flew with.
Nelson’s prostate cancer was first detected at age 48, just three months after he retired from the Air Force. In his career he has more than 2,600 flying hours, including commanding the 455th Air Expeditionary Group in Bagram, Afghanistan, and as commander of six squadrons of F-15E fighter jets at the 4th Operations Group at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina.
Last month McClatchy reported on a new Air Force study that reviewed the risk for prostate cancers among its fighter pilots and new Veterans Health Administration data showing that the rate of reported cases of prostate cancers per year among veterans using the VA health care system across all services has risen almost 16% since fiscal year 2000.
The Air Force study also looked at cockpit exposure, finding that “pilots have greater environmental exposure to ultraviolet and ionizing radiation … (fighter pilots) have unique intra-cockpit exposures to non-ionizing radiation.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that exposure to some types of radiation can cause cancer, however to date there has been no link established between the specific radiation emitted from radars on these advanced jets and the illnesses pilots are now seeing.
Navy and Air Force pilots told McClatchy about their battles with cancer, their frustrations about what they saw as the limitations of the Air Force study, and about former pilots who have died from cancer.
“When you’re 30 years old you need to start screening for prostate cancer, even if it comes out of your own pocket,” Nelson said. “You need to see a urologist once a year. Not your primary care physician, not your flight doc. Pay the money and stick around for your great-grandkids.”
If the military would begin screening for cancer earlier, “that would save lives,” Nelson said. The military’s health care system, TRICARE, currently covers prostate cancer screenings at age 50 for service members with no family history of the disease, and as young as age 40 if there is a family history of the disease in two or more family members. The pilots who spoke with McClatchy said they did not have a family history of prostate cancer when they were diagnosed.
For example, a 2009 peer-reviewed study published by the American Association for Cancer Research looked at cancer rates among service members from 1990 to 2004 and reported in 2009 that “prostate cancer rates in the military were twice those in the general population, and breast cancer rates were 20% to 40% higher.”
However, a 2011 study published in the peer-reviewed journal “Aviation, Space and Environmental Medicine” found no significant difference in prostate cancer rates between pilots and non-pilots in the military. It’s the same conclusion that the Air Force study found.
“The Air Force did not ask the right question,” Hill said of the study, which like the 2011 aviation journal review compared cancer rates between pilots and non-pilots but largely did not look at what happened to the pilots’ health after their military careers. The Air Force said its study was limited by lack of access to pilots’ health records after they separated from the military.
“If they are really going to protect the people who have gone out and served, they need to look at the guys’ health 20 years after they have finished their military careers,” Hill said. His own informal review of fellow pilots showed a similar pattern: cancers usually surfaced about 15 to 20 years after pilots left the military, which would not have been captured by the Air Force review.