Mental Care Needs in Combat Veterans After Cancer Diagnosis

4 Min Read

soldiers running with machine guns

American veterans with mesothelioma are a unique population of cancer patients, as combat-related traumas have a direct impact on their ability to survive. Researchers have demonstrated a fascinating result—though veterans are more likely to experience mental distress after a cancer diagnosis, they also have a higher level of “resilience.”

Mental Health Concerns for Combat Veterans

Veterans face struggles that most of the population will never understand. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other psychological challenges are common in veterans, as they work under life-threatening circumstances in demanding environments.

Veterans may suffer from other mental health concerns, including: 

  • Anxiety Disorders: The extreme stressors of combat cause some veterans to develop an anxiety disorder. An anxiety disorder may cause nightmares, an increased pulse, and/or intense fear.
  • Bipolar Disorder: Veterans with bipolar disorder may have alternate periods of feeling elated and energetic, then feeling depressed and hopeless.
  • Depression: Depression is one of the most common mental disorders in the U.S., and its symptoms appear in approximately 1 in 3 veterans.
  • Insomnia: Insomnia, as well as nightmares, is one of the most challenging symptoms of PTSD.
  • Panic Disorders/Phobias: Panic disorders and/or phobias may occur in veterans whose anxiety does not go away or even worsens over time.
  • Schizophrenia: As of 2014, approximately 120,000 veterans who were receiving health care from the VA were diagnosed with schizophrenia.
  • Substance Abuse/Addiction: To cope with the trauma and hardships of combat, some veterans turn to drugs and/or alcohol. Persistent drug use leads to addiction and can be fatal.
  • Thoughts of Suicide: Some extreme cases of anxiety or depression may lead to thoughts of suicide.

Combat Veterans and Distressing Mesothelioma Diagnoses

The grueling work environments of veterans can lead to mental health issues that surface during or shortly after their service. However, the impacts of their past struggles often resurface when veterans are diagnosed with cancer and undergo treatment later in life.

For anyone, a cancer diagnosis takes a mental toll. However, it can be especially distressing for veterans. When veterans learn that they have mesothelioma because they’ve been exposed to asbestos throughout their military career, the emotional devastation can be astounding.

Every branch of the U.S. military used asbestos for nearly 50 years. Asbestos was a standard material used abundantly in buildings and shipyards. After the dangers of asbestos were scientifically accepted in the 1970s, the military continued to use asbestos—until as late as the 1990s. Learning of this hard truth can be especially devastating for veterans.

Scientific Study on Distress and Resilience

A study by the Department of Veterans Affairs looked at how former combat experience and post-traumatic stress affect the ability of veterans to cope with cancer diagnoses.

The study primarily looked at 133 veterans, mostly men, and tried to answer several essential questions:

  • Does previous combat exposure increase the risk of distress when confronted with a life-threatening illness?
  • Are veterans more resilient after surviving combat?
  • How does combat trauma impact a person’s lifespan development?

The study used surveys and a focus group to evaluate veterans battling cancer. The researchers used the following assessments to help evaluate results:

  • Sociodemographic information — factors such as age, gender, religion, and income)
  • Whether they experienced either combat PTSD and/or cancer PTSD symptoms
  • Overall patient health and any depression levels
  • The Benefit Finding Scale — assessing whether there are any perceived benefits of a cancer diagnosis

Ultimately, the VA study found that veterans’ response to cancer followed different patterns depending on their mental health and service history.

Veterans who experienced combat-PTSD were notably more distressed after receiving a diagnosis. But these same veterans experienced the most personal growth in the time following their diagnosis — highlighting their personal resilience.

Combat veterans who didn’t experience PTSD from combat had steadier responses, as they were less impacted by their initial diagnosis but also experienced the least amount of personal growth from their cancer. Veterans who never served in combat experienced an average amount of distress and growth.

Different Types of Resilience in Combat Veterans

The health impacts of military service go well beyond the initial traumas and experiences of the combat zone. Combat’s psychological impacts on veterans affect many of them for the rest of their lives, compromising their ability to cope with other challenges, including mesothelioma.

Many veterans who served in combat have fewer mental health issues from a cancer diagnosis than veterans who never participated in combat. In this sense, combat veterans are extraordinarily resilient to their cancer, experiencing less emotional trauma.

However, combat veterans with PTSD are on the opposite end of the spectrum. These veterans are the most challenged by an initial diagnosis. But these same vets also personally grow the most as a result of these challenges, demonstrating a different type of resilience that comes from introspection and perseverance.

This resilience is important when battling cancer, as a person’s ability to fight is directly related to their emotional and mental wellbeing. Scientists have proven that people who are willing to fight for their lives are more likely to beat their cancer, which makes resilience an incredibly valuable human trait.

Supporting Veterans With Cancer

Our veterans may be naturally resilient, but that doesn’t mean they should fight cancer alone. We need to support our veterans with treatment programs that can help identify and mitigate the impacts of combat on their recovery. A veteran with PTSD is going to have an extraordinarily difficult time coping with their initial diagnosis, and this isn’t something he or she should suffer with in silence.

Veterans have mental and emotional health needs stemming from their unique experiences that must be acknowledged, considered, and addressed as part of their treatment. Mental and emotional health is just as important as physical health, and they will play a role in our veterans’ ability to fight and survive mesothelioma and other types of cancer.

To learn more about services available to U.S. veterans, contact the Mesothelioma Veterans Center. The Mesothelioma Veterans Center connects veterans with treatment options, counseling, support, VA benefits, and more.

Veterans Support Team
Christopher Dryfoos PhotoWritten by:

Contributing Author

Christopher Dryfoos is a journalist and member of the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA). As the grandson of the U.S. Navy’s first forensic pathologist, he aims to help veterans with mesothelioma access needed care.

  1. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, “Distress and Resilience After Cancer in Veterans,” Retrieved from Accessed on February 10, 2019.
  2. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, “Cancer-related PTSD symptoms in a veteran sample: association with age, combat PTSD, and quality of life,” Accessed on February 10, 2019.
  3. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, “In the Veteran’s Voice: Psychosocial Needs After Cancer Treatment,” Accessed on February 10, 2019.