Retired Air Force ‘River Rats’ Survey: 56% Had Cancer

A survey conducted by the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association asked its 3400 members if they had been diagnosed with cancer. Out of 894 responses from the association members, 500 of them answered yes to the question: “Have you ever been diagnosed with cancer?”

The association includes both current and former military pilots known as the “River Rats.”

The leader of the group, retired Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle pilot Col. Vince “Aztec” Alcazar was astonished to find that 56 percent of the survey respondents disclosed having a personal cancer, as he shared in his interview with DoD reporter for McClatchy Tara Copp.

“I was not prepared for that,” said Alcazar who serves on the association’s medical issues committee.

The two most commonly reported types of cancer were melanoma or skin cancer followed by prostate cancer, said Alcazar. The survey was limited and only captured the number of cancer among the living pilots, while it also isn’t known how many of its former members had already died of cancer.

The River Rats have shared their initial findings with Air Force leadership. Getting actual numbers of the likelihood of cancer among pilots to the medical community could save lives.

While the 3400 aviation membership is a large number, it doesn’t encompass the total number of retired Navy and Air Force aviators that served as pilots or crew on other types of aircraft.

For the fiscal years between 1999 to 2018, approximately 800 to 1000 air crew left the military each year, based on information provided by the US Navy to McClatchy. The Air Force didn’t disclose how many members leave each year.

The association plans to approach Congress with their data and seek legislation for a more in depth study to be conducted by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense. The study would review the medical records of all pilots living and deceased to figure out how many have had cancer.

The association would like to have a congressionaly mandated study of all military pilots and aircrew on all types of military aircraft. The Air Force is conducting a study on it’s former aviators, back to 1970.

Lawmakers including Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., have introduced legislation to look at aspects of military pilot cancers.

Last fall McClatchy found that the rate of treatment for cancer at VA healthcare facilities skyrocketed during the last two decades. Prostate cancer treatment rates rose 44 percent from FY 2000 to FY 2018.

“Now, I’ve got a narrative to take to lawmakers on Capitol Hill,” Alcazar said. “It’s just not 4 or 5, or 10 or 20 or 100 emails” of personal stories of pilot cancers, he said. “It’s a large organization that took the time to do a well thought-out survey. And the results say, ‘it’s worth a look folks.’”

These studies would assist in screening and diagnosing cancer for pilots when they go into the VA medical system.

“You walk into a VA hospital for the first time. They go ‘Oh, you flew F-18s in the Marine Corps.’ Or, ‘You flew F-16s in the United States Air Force. There’s a whole bunch of certain kinds of cancers that have been found to be a little bit more common in these groups of pilots than they are in the mainstream population,” said Alcazar. “So we’re going to start looking at indicators. We’re going to start screening for those.”


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