STREAMING NOW: Watch Now

Veterans Fight to Get Rare Form of Cancer Covered by VA

It took decades for the Veterans Administration to acknowledge the connection between Agent Orange and the illnesses ...

Posted: May 1, 2018 12:30 AM
Updated: May 1, 2018 12:30 AM

It took decades for the Veterans Administration to acknowledge the connection between Agent Orange and the illnesses of hundreds of Vietnam veterans. Now some vets are fighting to get help for another deadly killer that they believe is connected to their years of service.

Michael Baughman made it home safe from Vietnam. But five decades later, the war is killing him.

He suffers from a rare form of cancer that he believes was caused by fish he ate when his troop ran out of rations in rugged mountain terrain near the demilitarized zone.

"Before the helicopter could come in and drop the food, we would just go down to the local watering hole. They had these little smaller hand grenades and we would throw those into the river and then dive down and get the fish off the bottom," said Baughman.

But in the military, they don't hand out cookware.

"I remember it like it was yesterday: trying to get a skewer, get it scaled. And there were some fuel tabs to actually do the cooking. But it never really fully cooked," he said.

The cancer, called Cholangiocarcinoma, or cancer of the bile duct, goes undetected for decades, making it often uncurable by the time it's diagnosed.

"These are rare cancers," said Dr. Kate Kelley, an oncologist at UCSF Medical Center and an expert on the disease.

She says its causes are still unknown, but there are clear risk factors, including a parasite called a fluke that infects fresh water fish in Southeast Asia.

"When people eat raw fish, the fluke can then infest our own livers and cause an infection, which generally is cleared over time, but results in another cycle of inflammation that can lead to mutations that result in cancer," said Dr. Kelley.

"That's the only thing it could be," said Baughman. But when he applied for disability benefits, the VA wouldn't believe him.

"We don't think its related," he says they told him.

Three times his claim was denied. The stated cause: "There is no evidence that this condition is associated with herbicide exposure."

In other words, it's not Agent Orange, so you're not covered.

"There any help from them. Their job is to give you the denial, keep the numbers down," said Baughman.

Other veterans are going through the same thing. From 2013 through 2017, the VA received 240 disability claims for Cholangiocarcinoma. Only 57 - or about 23 percent - were granted.

As a result of all the claims, the VA conducted a pilot study published late last year that confirmed for the first time "evidence of exposure to the liver fluke parasites in U.S. soldiers during their service in the Vietnam war."

But in an email, a VA spokesperson told KPIX-TV, "a larger study would be needed to establish a link."

In Michael's case, his personal doctor came to the rescue.

"We realized in speaking to him, he has a history of actually being out in combat," said Dr. Philip Yee.

For Dr. Yee, the connection was obvious.

"It's not chance that he has the most rare tumor! There is a really good possibility that he was exposed," said Dr. Yee.

Dr. Yee sent a letter to the VA stating the connection was "more likely than not." That did the trick with the Veterans Administration.

Last year, three years after his first diagnosis, the VA finally approved Baughman's disability claim.

But he can't forget the hundreds of other fellow soldiers still waiting for relief, and the hundreds more who don't even know they have the disease.

"Let's get the veterans aware that there is an issue. That is why we are here. That is why we are talking," Baughman said.

The VA says about 700 patients with Baughman's kind of cancer have passed through the agency's medical system in the last 15 years. But fewer than half the vets submitted claims, because they didn't know there could be a possible link to their service.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 62199

Reported Deaths: 1753
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Hinds5329110
DeSoto338727
Madison232460
Harrison222833
Rankin216830
Jackson206338
Jones180457
Forrest165353
Washington152433
Lauderdale135488
Lee127430
Neshoba123288
Lamar114613
Oktibbeha106036
Lowndes99932
Bolivar98732
Warren97630
Scott96219
Panola93611
Sunflower92623
Copiah92426
Lafayette88512
Leflore86660
Holmes85148
Pike84632
Grenada81621
Yazoo79311
Leake77125
Lincoln75641
Pontotoc7527
Wayne73621
Simpson72328
Monroe71650
Coahoma67710
Tate66524
Marion62519
Covington60112
Adams58725
Marshall5858
Winston58415
George5495
Union53814
Newton52611
Attala50224
Pearl River49637
Tallahatchie49610
Walthall46318
Chickasaw44319
Noxubee42611
Claiborne40113
Jasper3859
Smith38513
Calhoun3819
Clay37413
Alcorn3634
Prentiss3516
Hancock34414
Tishomingo3394
Itawamba31710
Tippah31612
Lawrence3155
Yalobusha31310
Clarke31025
Montgomery2973
Tunica2926
Humphreys27411
Carroll24811
Quitman2331
Greene23211
Kemper22715
Perry2267
Jefferson Davis2146
Amite2116
Webster20112
Jefferson1936
Wilkinson18813
Sharkey1831
Stone1593
Benton1300
Choctaw1294
Franklin1172
Issaquena211
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 90890

Reported Deaths: 1611
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Jefferson12039228
Mobile9170197
Montgomery6305147
Madison508227
Tuscaloosa398466
Baldwin326323
Shelby307532
Marshall298433
Unassigned281255
Lee251940
Morgan224315
Etowah195728
DeKalb171813
Elmore162637
Calhoun159012
Walker147464
Houston132712
Dallas129423
Russell12471
St. Clair123612
Limestone120813
Franklin120620
Cullman115711
Colbert110712
Lauderdale109512
Autauga103020
Escambia97915
Talladega92713
Jackson8704
Chambers82838
Tallapoosa82278
Dale78722
Butler75135
Blount7413
Chilton7226
Coffee7165
Covington71520
Pike6607
Barbour5635
Lowndes55824
Marion54724
Marengo52614
Clarke4879
Hale45726
Bullock44111
Winston43211
Perry4314
Wilcox4089
Monroe3954
Randolph39110
Bibb3813
Conecuh37210
Pickens3719
Sumter35918
Lawrence3240
Washington31412
Macon31113
Crenshaw2973
Choctaw27612
Cherokee2477
Henry2463
Greene24511
Geneva2420
Clay2235
Lamar2032
Fayette1765
Cleburne1211
Coosa922
Out of AL00
Tupelo
Clear
67° wxIcon
Hi: 88° Lo: 67°
Feels Like: 67°
Columbus
Clear
67° wxIcon
Hi: 88° Lo: 68°
Feels Like: 67°
Oxford
Clear
63° wxIcon
Hi: 85° Lo: 63°
Feels Like: 63°
Starkville
Clear
64° wxIcon
Hi: 85° Lo: 64°
Feels Like: 64°
WTVA Radar
WTVA Temperatures
WTVA Severe Weather