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Vietnam vets want the VA to cover a rare form of cancer that may have been caused by the war

In October 1966, five team members of F Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Regiment, US Army, wade through a waist-deep stream, roofed over by dense jungle, about 400 meters south of the De-militarized Zone in Vietnam. A group of former U.S. soldiers said that a type of cancer many of them are suffering was caused by the Vietnam War. (Lance Corporal Romine/Three Lions/Getty Images)

A group of former U.S. soldiers is fighting to get the Department of Veterans Affairs to recognize that a type of cancer many of them are suffering was caused by the Vietnam War.

What are the veterans saying?

Veteran Michael Baughman told KPIX-TV that he blamed the raw fish he was forced to eat in Vietnam for his cancer.

“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," Baughman said. "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.”

Why do they need the VA to recognize the cause of the cancer?

Because the VA does not recognize that this type of cancer as having been caused by the fish that soldiers were forced to eat, the department does not offer the same benefits that it would otherwise. Baughman said that his claim was denied because the VA insisted that “[t]here is no evidence that this condition is associated with herbicide exposure.”

Thankfully, Baughman's personal doctor managed to convince the VA to approve his claim, but Baughman is only one of hundreds of veterans with this disease. WPIX reported that the VA has seen around 700 veterans with this rare type of cancer over the last 15 years, and that most do not realize that there could be a connection between their cancer and their military service.

Do they have a case?

They might. The type of cancer Baughman and some of this fellow veterans are being diagnosed with is called Cholangiocarcinoma. It’s a cancer of the bile duct that is often undetected until it advances far enough to be incurable.

WPIX quoted Dr. Kate Kelly, an oncologist at UCSF Medical Center, who confirmed that Baughman’s theory was possible: “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,”

What is the Department of Veterans Affairs saying?

While Kelly is certainly not alone in thinking that eating raw fish in Vietnam could have caused this type of cancer, the medical community at large has not reached a consensus.

The VA conducted a pilot study that found “evidence of exposure to the liver fluke parasites in U.S. soldiers during their service in the Vietnam war," but those results failed to result in any changes. A VA spokesperson told KPIX that “a larger study would be needed to establish a link” before they made a change to policy.

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