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By Bill Thompson July 26, 2011

Cliff Stearns, in pushing for research funding, says military men twice as likely to get prostate cancer

War, needless to say, is fraught with danger — bullets flying, bombs exploding. But one Florida congressman recently targeted a silent killer that attacks soldiers from within.

Rep. Cliff Stearns recently sought — and received — House approval to shift $16 million in Pentagon funding to beef up research for prostate cancer for military members.

The Ocala Republican pointed out in a press release that prostate cancer was the second-leading cause of cancer-related death among American men.

No argument there. After all, according to the American Cancer Society, only skin cancer is more common than prostate cancer among American men. And only lung cancer kills more of those sufferers.

What caught our attention, though, was Stearns’ follow-up assertion: "In addition," he said, "active duty males in the military are twice as likely to develop prostate cancer than their civilian counterparts."

Twice as likely? Really?

We asked Stearns’ office about the congressman’s sources, and spokesman Paul Flusche provided a trio of publications.

One looked at how Agent Orange might have caused a spike in prostate cancer rates among Vietnam War vets. Another focused on prostate cancer rates strictly among Air Force personnel.

The third, which Flusche labeled as the "most important" in supporting Stearns’ claim, was conducted by a team of scientists who compared the rates at which a variety of cancers, including prostate cancer, strike soldiers relative to civilians.

That study, conducted by the U.S. Military Cancer Institute, or USMCI, at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, was led by Dr. Kangmin Zhu.

Zhu’s team actually reviewed six types of cancer — breast, lung, prostate, colorectal, testicular and cervical — for soldiers ages 20 to 59. The data they studied covered from 1990 to 2004. For prostate cancer, the study population included 910 soldiers and 42,751 civilians.

In some instances, such as with testicular cancer, there were no differences in the rate of occurrence between the military and civilian populations, the report said.

But Zhu and his colleagues, based on their analysis of the numbers, concluded: "Prostate cancer rates in the military were twice those in the general population."

So Stearns is citing a verifiable statistic contained in a reputable story.

The natural question, of course, is why would military members be more prone to prostate cancer?

The Zhu study could only speculate.

For instance, researchers found discrepancies between military and civilian healthcare providers in how cancer incidents are reported, which could explain at least part of the difference.

Zhu also hypothesized that better and more frequent health screening for soldiers might explain why prostate cancer is more prevalent among U.S. troops. Exposure to depleted uranium also might account for the results.

But Zhu ultimately said that he could not determine a reason and suggested further study.

We ran the findings by Dr. Jonathan Simons, president and CEO of the Prostate Cancer Foundation, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based philanthropic organization that has raised roughly $450 million and helped fund 1,500 researchers at 200 institutions in 12 countries. (The foundation was not connected to Zhu’s work.)

Simons observed that Zhu’s mission was not to find why military members seemed more likely to get prostate cancer, but to simply crunch the numbers.

In that context, Simons said Stearns was "absolutely correct" and justified in stating that military personnel were twice as likely as civilian men to contract prostate cancer.

For one thing, Simons noted, "This is not the junior varsity that did the work. These are really top people."

Still, Simons cautioned that the potential for drawing a "false correlation" existed -- namely that military members are more likely to get prostate cancer than non-military members.

If military service meant a greater risk of developing cancer, then one would expect soldiers to exhibit higher rates of the disease across the board, Simons said. That was not the case here.

Yet he reiterated that much more research into prostate cancer occurrences among soldiers was necessary to determine whether the findings were a "fluke" or if there was a definite connection — and if so, what might cause it. And that, Simons observed, was Stearns’ goal in pushing for more funding.

"I actually compliment Representative Stearns for elevating it," Simons said. "Congressman Stearns did a really important bit of public health policy here."

Back to Stearns’ comment. In pushing for $16 million in Pentagon funding to beef up research for prostate cancer for military members, he said that "active duty males in the military are twice as likely to develop prostate cancer than their civilian counterparts." Stearns is correct that research shows that military members are diagnosed with prostate cancer at twice the rate as non-military members.

However, that same research doesn’t conclude that military members are twice as likely to "develop" prostate cancer as Stearns said. The study hypothesizes that one reason for the different diagnosis rate may be because military members are subject to more frequent health screenings. Getting to the bottom of the discrepancy is actually why Stearns requested the money. That’s a needed clarification when considering Stearns’ comment. We rate his statement Mostly True.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

American Cancer Society website, accessed July 14

U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns July 6 press release

U.S. Military Cancer Institute website, accessed July 14

Study by Dr. Kangmin Zhu, "Cancer Incidence in the U.S. Military Population: Comparison with Rates from the SEER Program," accessed July 13

Medical Surveillance Monthly Report, June 2010, accessed July 15

Study by Dr. Grover Yamane, "Cancer Incidence in the U.S. Air Force, 1989-2002," accessed July 15

Study by Dr. Karim Chalmie, "Agent Orange Exposure, Vietnam War Veterans and the Risk of Prostate Cancer," accessed July 15, 2011

E-mail interview with Paul Flusche, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns, July 13, 2011

Prostate Cancer Foundation
website, accessed July 15, 2011

E-mail interview with Rebecca Levine of Prostate Cancer Foundation, July 13, 2011

Interview with Dr. Jonathan Simons, July 14, 2011

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Cliff Stearns, in pushing for research funding, says military men twice as likely to get prostate cancer

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