Veterans With Brain Cancer Forced to Fight the VA for Benefits

Veterans With Brain Cancer Forced to Fight the VA for Benefits

Noah Feehan wore a mesh cap almost all day, every single day, with 18 terminals that sent electrical pulses to a tumor in his brain.

Feehan, a 38-year-old master sergeant in the Minnesota Air National Guard, was diagnosed with cancer in December 2020 and had vowed to do whatever it took, including wearing the device 18 hours a day and sometimes enduring shocking pains, to survive.

It didn't just trigger momentary pain. He stopped eating, and he stopped smiling. Earlier this summer, Jenny, Feehan’s wife of 13 years asked him if he wanted to get rid of the cap forever, even though it meant letting go of an important weapon.

A light went on then, Jenny said. She hadn’t seen him happier in a long time.

No one knows why Feehan, an avionics technician, developed a rare brain cancer that typically attacks people in their 60s and older.

Nonetheless, he and other veterans have theories. They have worked with electronics and jet fuel, lived in pits contaminated with depleted uranium, and worked in places contaminated by pollutants.

Nearly half a million Iraq and Afghanistan war vets have traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and they are the most common problems veterans deal with after their service. However, veterans are also being diagnosed with diseases possibly linked to toxic waste and environmental hazards at a high rate.

Glioblastoma is the most common brain cancer, affecting 12,000 Americans a year. According to a few studies, the rate that veterans and military personnel get glioblastoma is inconclusive at this time. At the same time though, glioblastoma is the third leading cause of cancer-related death in the active-duty population, behind leukemia and colon cancer.

Veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan are 26% more likely to develop glioblastoma, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and National Institutes of Health data. 

Many veterans and their families think their illnesses are related to military exposure. Despite this, 42% of the 2,126 post-9/11 veterans who have been diagnosed with brain cancer are unable to access medical and disability benefits. Metastatic brain tumors, such as glioblastoma, do not receive a separate VA claim.

Veterans and families dealing with the emotional and physical challenges of fighting brain cancer may find the added burden of battling the VA over benefits too challenging to bear.

Amy Antioho, widow of Army Capt. Peter Antioho, spends her days working on a farm and caring for the couple's 5-year-old son, Mark. He has come to know his father through notes from friends and family recollections.

Antioho’s last days in hospice remain in Amy’s mind as she tries to focus on the memories from before cancer. He was sheltered from nurses who told him he would eventually get better and go home. In the same way, Marius cradles Eponine in Les Miserables; she remembers lying next to Peter, listening to its soundtrack. She recalls the moment she permitted him to leave, trying to relieve him of his responsibility of caring for his family.

The handsome soldier she misses is gone.

Is there a military connection?

As per the National Health Institutes, the rate of glioblastoma in the general population, when age is considered, is about 3.2 cases per 100,000 people, with the median age of onset being 64.

The VA reports that from 2015-2019, brain cancer - mostly glioblastomas - averaged 5.2 cases per 100,000 veterans in the post-9/11 era with VA health care. This is in a population where nearly half are ages 30 to 39.

Vietnam and Persian Gulf vets also see high rates - 6.2 per 100,000 per year from 2015-2019.

Any veteran diagnosed with brain cancer while serving or developing it within a year of discharge is automatically eligible for benefits.
Everyone else has to file a disability claim. Since 2002, Vietnam, Persian Gulf, and post-9/11 veterans with brain cancer and their surviving family members have enjoyed varying degrees of success.

The VA revised the data a few days before publication, indicating that post-9/11 veterans had a much higher approval rate, 58%, but Persian Gulf War vets had a much lower approval rate, 31%.

Using a new algorithm that more accurately sorted vets into their service period, approval rates rose for post-9/11 vets and fell for Persian Gulf vets.

Just about half of veterans who have developed brain cancer since August 1990 have been denied benefits. This is unacceptable, say veterans' advocates.

It looks like the path could get more accessible this year. The VA announced in November that it's deciding whether to fast track disability benefits for some cancers and a rare lung disorder.

The department has published no list of cancers under consideration. However, veterans with glioblastoma and their families want it to be. Maj. Beau Biden, the commander-in-chief's son, died of glioblastoma in 2015.

In 2008, Biden went to Iraq and worked near a burn pit in Kosovo.
Burn Pits 360 adviser Dr. Anthony Szema, a pulmonologist who studies lung diseases among post-9/11 veterans, said he is not surprised that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are getting cancer.

Dioxins and benzene are released into the air when plastics and some fuels are burned, he said.

Army Lt. Col. Brett Theeler, a neuro-oncologist and chair of the neurology department at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, said the research on battlefield exposure and brain cancer is scarce.

After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, studies found a higher risk of brain cancer among veterans exposed to nerve agents or chemical weapons.
Compared to those who were not exposed to Sarin and Cyclosarin, veterans who destroyed the Khamisiyah Ammunition Storage Facility had a 72% greater risk of brain cancer. Later, a study also found a higher risk of brain cancer among vets exposed to oil-well fire smoke during and after the war.

The Air Force Special Operations Command asked the Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine in 2009 to look into a possible cluster of brain cancers among seven airmen assigned to C-130 Hercules aircraft.

The Struggle for Benefits
Several service members, spouses and lawmakers hope to secure benefits, indicating that the lack of scientific evidence should not be an issue, given what is known about industrial toxins and exposures.
Amy thinks that Antioho’s malignancy may have taken root in his brain even before he was diagnosed, based on behavior changes she noticed during his last year of service.

Antioho, who had planned to go into special operations, abandoned them inexplicably and then quit the Army altogether, even though he had no job and a pregnant wife.

As a result, he took more risks and acted impulsively. He also became paranoid - a symptom of brain cancer.

Amy said an early diagnosis wouldn't have changed the outcome, but it would have sped up the VA claims process.

Feehan is still a full-time National Guard member, so he won't have to go through the lengthy VA appeals process. A VA disability rating of 100% was awarded to him in December.

The legislation will come too late for spouses such as Jenyfer Johnson, whose husband Dean Johnson died of glioblastoma 14 months after being diagnosed with the disease.

As a result of their contact with Sen. Richard Blumenthal's office, the Antiohos' appeal received significant publicity. Amy said VA claims officers, veterans service organizations, lawmakers, and sometimes lawyers should not be involved in such a complicated process.

Jenny has paid more than $10,000 toward Feehan's treatment to date. Now that they've been granted disability, they'll be able to focus on his chemotherapy treatment and enjoy the time with their sons Jack, Peyton, and Logan.

Jenny has kept friends and family updated by writing a blog about Noah during these trying days.