Veterans often turn to military experience to help battle cancer

Veterans often summon the strength, determination and skills they learned in the military to help fight cancer.

Americans who enter the military are motivated by a variety of factors. Some may volunteer to get specific training or education or to better themselves physically and mentally. Some may be seeking to use their talents and assets to be part of something bigger than themselves. They also may join for love of country and to ensure the safety and well-being of all Americans. What many may not realize when they enter the service is that they often gain invaluable skills, traits and life lessons they may not have expected.

Veterans diagnosed with cancer, even those who have not been in uniform for decades, often summon the strength, determination and other traits and skills they learned and honed during their days in uniform to fight their new adversary. David S. and Wade W., two U.S. Marine Corps veterans, say being able to pull from their military experiences has helped them face the physical and emotional challenges of their cancer diagnosis with determination. Here are three lessons they shared about how their military service helped them face cancer.

Have the right attitude

Dave, a U.S. Marine for 20 years and prostate cancer patient at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA), Chicago, says a positive attitude helped him move forward with a treatment plan. Setting health goals and keeping focused and aligning his attitude toward achieving those goals also helped.

“Quitting as a Marine was never an option. Giving up on cancer is never an option for me,” says Dave, an infantryman and aviation electrician in the Marines. “I feel it is so important for me to keep a positive attitude.”

Alexandria Callahan, LCPC, BC-DMT, Behavioral Health Therapist at CTCA® Chicago, agrees it’s important to stay positive. But, she says, it’s also OK to acknowledge the range of positive and negative emotions that may also accompany a cancer diagnosis.

“Many people come in saying, ‘I’m trying to stay positive because negative thinking is bad for my health,’” she says. “We encourage patients to give themselves permission to feel all the emotions, so that they’re not holding them in. This also helps to decrease the stress that may be associated with bottling things up.”

Callahan says it’s important for patients to reach out to their care team if they feel they need help to decrease stress and improve their outlook.

“Staying in the present moment is also helpful with attitude. When we think too much about the past ‘should haves,’ we can become depressed. In the same vein, when we worry about the future ‘what ifs,’ we can become anxious,” says Callahan. “Staying in the present moment may help a patient with how they’re doing today and what their body needs right now to continue moving forward.”

Patients struggling with stress, anxiety and other emotions may choose to turn to a behavioral health therapist to learn coping strategies.

“Recognizing our emotions while being treated for cancer is a very important part of coping,” says Elaine Smith, Behavioral Health Therapist at CTCA Atlanta. “Psycho-social interventions may help us feel more positive and increase our quality of life. Individual support, group therapy, relaxation and meditation can be useful to reduce our distress and help keep our emotions manageable.”

Summon your grit and perseverance

Wade, a vocal cord cancer patient at CTCA Atlanta who served in the Marines Corps in South Carolina, North Carolina, Texas and the Dakotas, says one of the most valuable lessons he learned in the military was accepting his circumstances and choosing to persevere.

“Perseverance and grit can help patients be proactive in their cancer care and interventions for treatment,” says Smith. “These two qualities may help patients be informed, ask questions and to be an active participant in their care planning. This can help cancer patients feel empowered and in control.”

Many patients undergo months or even years of cancer treatment. Continuing to endure through often-difficult treatments can be trying. Many veterans may draw from their military experience in such times, empowered by the memories of overcoming trying circumstances.

Lean on others and keep the faith

Many people may find it difficult to ask for help or depend on others, even in the midst of a difficult cancer journey.

“Support systems, no matter the size, are helpful for motivation and comfort. We all have rough days, and going through the cancer journey while also continuing on with life can be even more challenging,” says Callahan. “Allowing for help, especially when going through treatment, provides the body the time and space it needs to recuperate and continue to heal.”

For David and Wade, learning to depend on others, and on their faith, made an important difference. Relying on family, friends and caregivers may also help you reserve and renew your strength and energy to help you to continue working toward your health goals.

“My time in the Marines taught me to depend on my fellow Marine to help protect me and support me when needed. The Marines also taught us to work as a team, because you can get more done as a team,” says David. “In your challenges in life, get a good support team. Do your research, and make sure that your team has the winning spirit and is willing to go the mile with you.”

Patients of faith may also reach out for spiritual support after a cancer diagnosis. Wade says turning to his faith and using the power of prayer helped him throughout his cancer journey. “God is in charge, and prayer is mighty,” he says.

Veterans and cancer

Here are five facts about veterans and cancer:

  • The most frequently diagnosed cancers among patients treated by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) are:
    • Prostate cancer
    • Lung cancer
    • Colorectal cancer
    • Bladder cancer
    • Melanoma
  • Veterans account for about 3 percent of all cancers in the United States. More than 48,000 cancer cases are reported to VA's Central Cancer Registry every year.
  • If the VA was an American state, it would rank 10th in the number of cancer diagnoses, between New Jersey and North Carolina.
  • Cancer risk factors for members of the military since World War II include:
    • Radiation from nuclear weapons or nuclear-powered vessels
    • Nerve gas or chemical weapons
    • Herbicides, such as Agent Orange
    • Asbestos
    • Contaminated water
    • Toxic fumes from burning oil or fire pits
  • The percentage of Americans diagnosed with cancer who have served in the military is 10.9 percent, compared to 9.8 percent for Americans who have not served.

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