When you think of colorectal cancer, you most likely imagine a patient who is older, as the average diagnosis age is 68 for men and 72 for women. Currently, the recommended age to begin screening for average risk individuals is 45. However, the reality is that people under the age of 45 can develop colorectal cancer as well. 

There is a lesser-known risk factor for colorectal cancer – toxic exposure – that may contribute to cases of colorectal cancer. For most of the past century, industrial workers and military members regularly came into contact with carcinogenic agents, or agents that are known to cause cancer, such as asbestos, polyfluoroalkyl substance (PFAS), benzene, Agent Orange, dioxins, lead, burn pits, and polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs). If you were exposed to one of these toxic agents, having a colonoscopy or other screening method is the only way to prevent or timely diagnose colorectal cancer.

Colorectal Cancers Among Veterans Due To Toxic Environments

During the past century, members of the military frequently were exposed to carcinogenic agents. Over the course of the Vietnam War, military members on active duty were exposed to Agent Orange, a dangerous herbicide mixture containing dangerous chemicals known as dioxins that was sprayed over forests and foliage. Another important toxic agent is PFAS, which is a group of chemicals that have been released into the environment of military bases since 1966 due to firefighters and trainees using the fire suppressant known as Aqueous Film Forming Foams. PFAS are extremely toxic and curerntly contamine over 700 military bases in the country. 

Numerous veterans who spent time on duty in Afghanistan developed colorectal cancer, which in part may be due to frequently inhaling the acrid fumes released by burn pits. Electronics, food wrappers, metals, and soiled uniforms were just some of the items that were set on fire using jet fuel. Abundantly present in the military, asbestos was another toxic agent endangering the health of military members. It could be found nearly anywhere in the military, from ships to barracks. There were over 300 asbestos products aboard every U.S. Navy ship. Everyone who was aboard U.S. Navy ships unavoidably inhaled and ingested toxic fibers.

Occupational Exposure in Colorectal Cancer

By virtue of the many convenient properties asbestos has, it should come as no surprise that asbestos was also present in industrial settings. Since the early 1920s, major companies that used asbestos had been striving to hide  the negative health consequences of exposure from workers, conspiring to keep employing asbestos, oftentimes putting financial profit over the health of employees. As a result, millions of employees from over 70 occupational groups were exposed to asbestos to a certain extent. The workers who were regularly exposed to high airborne concentrations of asbestos include construction workers, shipyard workers, and textile mill workers.

Besides asbestos, there were many other toxic agents people working in industrial settings were exposed to, such as PCBs. Until 1976, when they were banned, PCBs had been manufactured in the U.S. on a large scale and used as insulation, coolants, and lubricants in transformers, electrical appliances, capacitors, and old fluorescent lighting fixtures. People who were responsible for manufacturing these products were inevitably exposed, which increased their risk of developing colorectal cancer. 

Medical Errors Can Delay the Diagnosis of Colorectal Cancer

Because a significant number of veterans and former industrial workers develop colorectal cancer before reaching the recommended screening age of 45, medical specialists are inclined to overlook the possibility that these patients could, in fact, suffer from this disease. For instance, a veteran with colorectal cancer may initially be misdiagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome, as their symptoms, including blood in the stool and abdominal pain, are consistent and common with both health problems. 

What is unsettling is that for years the patient could go about their life without knowing that they actually have cancer. Usually, in people who are considered too young to have colorectal cancer by the medical community, the disease is found accidentally, such as during a CT or MRI scan. In addition to irritable bowel syndrome, the most common misdiagnoses for colorectal cancer include diverticulitis, ulcerative colitis, and hemorrhoids. The most frequent medical errors leading to misdiagnoses in patients with colorectal cancer are the following:

  • failure to order a blood stool test
  • failure to offer a routine colorectal cancer screening
  • failing to identify and remove a polyp at colonoscopy
  • failing to visualize the entire colon during a colonoscopy
  • failure to adequately follow up on the results of a colonoscopy
  • failure to recommend a colonoscopy to a patient with symptoms

In most cases, colorectal cancer grows slowly over a period of several years, usually beginning as small benign growths, medically known as polyps. Removing a polyp early, before it becomes malignant, prevents it from developing into cancer. This is the reason why colonoscopy helps prevent the development of colorectal cancer. Additionally, colonoscopy can lead to diagnosing colorectal cancer in the early stages before it has spread to other tissues and organs. The difference in prognosis when cancer is detected early versus when it is found in advanced stages is tremendous – the five-year survival rate is 90% in the former case, whereas in late stage colorectal cancer survival rate is lower than 10%.

Therefore, the only way of preventing colorectal cancer if you are a veteran or former industrial worker is by undergoing a colonoscopy beginning at age 45. A colonoscopy will help your doctor see whether there are polyps that may become cancerous on your colon. If there are, your doctor can promptly remove the polyps before they become cancerous. Colonoscopy is a simple yet very effective screening test for colorectal cancer. Everyone at risk of developing the disease should undergo colonoscopy as often as their healthcare provider advises them. Routine screening should be covered without out-of-pocket costs but it is important to check with your insurance provider. 

It is also important to support additional colorectal cancer research to develop improved screening techniques and better treatment options. The Department of Defense conducts medical research through its Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program. Fight Colorectal Cancer is working with champions in Congress to create a Colorectal Cancer Research Program. 

For over 25 years, Environmental Litigation Group, P.C., has been assisting people whose health was affected by toxic exposure with recovering compensation from the responsible companies. The law firm has recently launched the Heroes and Sacrifices campaign, through which you can request a gift basket if you are a former industrial worker or a veteran.

8 thoughts on “Higher Risk for CRC: Veterans and Former Industrial Workers

  1. I am currently appealing a VA claim for my ColoRectal cancer that they denied. I served in the Navy from 1983 – 87, on Adak Alaska & as a Weapons TMT on the USS McKee Subtender. There were large amounts of asbestos in both places I served and have witnesses that will testify that served in Adak that did large amounts of asbestos removal on the Island of Adak. I was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2006 with a tumor and was fortunate enough to this day to say I am in remission. However I had a very radical surgery that left a huge scar that looks like I had an old time C-section. Does anyone have advise as to how to fight against the VA’s denial of my claim?

    1. Hi Mia, Our best advice is for you to contact your member of Congress and have them help you navigate the VA. Each congressional office has constituent services representatives that help people deal with federal agencies. They may be able to assist you.

  2. I’ve been denied 2x for my claim for my stage 4 colorectal cancer and now have got my Senator involved and am hoping the newest “Honoring our PACT act of 2021” HR 3967 legislation can start to make the process of getting compensation for cancer, even years after exposure, for our veterans easier.

    1. Hi Jason, Thank you for getting your senator involved, and we are wishing you and our veterans the best.

  3. Thank you I lost my husband January 1,2019 . He was exposed to toxins in Desert storm. I haven’t yet received any survivor benefits.

    1. Hi Hollie, We recommend that you contact your member of Congress and have them help you navigate the VA. Each congressional office has constituent services representatives that help people deal with federal agencies. They may be able to assist you. Thank you for your husband’s service. We are so sorry for your loss.

  4. Thank you for this group. I lost My husband, a Vietnam Vet to colon cancer in 2019. He was exposed to Agent Orange however, I have yet to receive Survivor Benefits.

    1. Hi Gail, Please reach out to your member of Congress and have them help you navigate the VA. Each congressional office has constituent services representatives that help people deal with federal agencies. They may be able to assist you. Thank you for your husband’s service. We are so sorry for your loss.

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