Skin cancer becomes new threat for military members after years of service

National and World

(WGN) — Skin cancer is a threat to our troops on and off the battlefield and is attacking service members at much higher rates.

It’s the nature of their job to be out in the elements for months. They have helmets, weapons and supplies to help them survive. But long after their years of service, another enemy threat surfaces — skin cancer.

“Studies have shown in general, the incidence rates in our military members are over 60% greater than the regular population,” said Dr. Sunandana Chandra, an oncologist at the Lurie Cancer Center at Northwestern Medicine.

Manny Acosta was diagnosed with melanoma last year.

Manny Acosta was diagnosed with melanoma last year. (Manny Acosta)

“I was in shock,” he said. “I was in shock and I kept blaming myself because I’m an outdoors kind of guy.”

The Marine Corps and National Reserve veteran, who also trained for marathons, spent years in the San Diego sun. 

The 39-year-old father of two young boys has had multiple procedures, including the removal of 13 lymph nodes. Thankfully, his cancer hasn’t spread. 

“I started off with one hole then another hole,” he said. “So my back has been cut up a little bit, to say the least.” 

“A lot of people think skin cancer is not a big deal. It’s on the surface of the skin and it’s not deadly. That’s actually not the right notion at all,” Chandra said. “(It) can be very deadly.”

“I just kept thinking I should have avoided this,” Acosta said. “Why didn’t I wear sunscreen all the times when I was on the beach getting sunburns and partying it up?”

Kyle Lewis grew up a California kid, spending his weekends on a boogie board in the Pacific. 

“I spent most of my childhood weekends outside,” he said. “The Pacific Ocean is pretty darn cold. I had a wet suit on most of the time, so I was well protected back then.” 

He stayed close to the water when he joined the Navy in 1999, working as a signals analyst trained in morse code. In other words, he was a spy.  

“Not the cool James Bond but more the nerdy kind,” he said.

After 911, he was deployed to the Middle East on a destroyer. Stuck below deck for hours, even days at a time, he longed to see the light.

Kyle Lewis pictured with his family. (Kyle Lewis)

“I would spend hours and days in that room. And I wouldn’t see the sun and it was awful for a surfer kid from California,” he said.

When he did surface, he spent his breaks soaking up the sun. 

“Of course, we’d get breaks and spend every waking moment we could out in the baking hot sun of the ‘Arabian Gulf,’ as the Navy likes to call it,” he said.

After four-plus years of service, Lewis left the military and went to work for various intelligence agencies until January 2020, when he noticed a lump on his chest.

“The pain kept getting worse, and it started to swell,” he said.

As the lump grew, tests confirmed the worst for the 42-year-old father of four: Stage 4 metastatic melanoma stemming from a mole on his back.

“We did a full body PET scan and it spread to quite a number of places,” he said, referring to a positron emission tomography scan. “Liver, spleen, spine, pelvis and a couple more in my back.”

Lewis was ultimately referred to Johns Hopkins Hospital for immunotherapy and targeted chemotherapy, which have helped shrink his tumors. He’ll never know if his cancer is the result of his service, so he’s not looking back. 

“Cancer killing me on a daily basis aside, I’m actually happier than I’ve been in a long, long time. I’m home. I’m spending a ton of time with my family,” he said. “If you are unfortunate enough to be put in a situation like this, you have to remain positive and make the most of whatever time you’ve got left … make the most of whatever you’ve got left.”

“My advice to the young men and women that are out there: ‘Thank you for your service, but think ahead,’” Acosta said. “You got to protect yourself. It ain’t going to happen in two years or five years. It’s going to happen 20 years down the road.” 

To combat the high skin cancer rates among service members, the Melanoma Research Foundation helped secure $30 million in research funding from the Department of Defense with plans to seek even more in 2022.

To learn more about the Melanoma Research Foundation and the organization’s Department of Defense-funded melanoma research, check out https://melanoma.org/how-to-help/advocate/federal-funding/ and https://melanoma.org/how-to-help/advocate/

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