Camp Lejeune fight: Male breast cancer

Disease not currently being considered for presumptive service connection

By Tara Evans - Executive Producer

THE VILLAGES, Fla. - It's been two months since the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs announced it would begin considering providing disability benefits for veterans with three out of 15 conditions associated with the toxic drinking water at Camp Lejeune.

[WEB EXTRA: ATSDR Interview | More Resources For Veterans]

It's called presumptive service connection, and essentially means that eligible veterans would no longer have to fight for compensation.

But News 6 has learned even if that designation is granted to some, thousands of veterans with other conditions wouldn't be covered-- and would still have to fight.

Among those left out is Jim Renna.

The day Renna found out he had breast cancer started out just like any other-- except for one thing.

"I was taking a shower at home in Connecticut, and I felt a lump under my left arm," said Renna. "And I said, 'What the heck is that?' I went to the doctor's and found out I had breast cancer, highly unusual for men."

It's so unusual, it accounts for less than 1 percent of all breast cancers.

"You have 100 cases at Camp Lejeune and you're one of them," said News 6 investigator Mike Holfeld.

"It was really a shock to me, because I wouldn't think that this was possible," said Renna. "I had a completely mastectomy."

Flashback nearly 60 years, when Renna served at Camp Lejeune for a month and a half in 1956.

"My cousin was a Marine, I always liked the Marines. I figured if I was going to go into the service, I was going to go into the Marines," said Renna. "At the base, it's 80, 90 degrees hot, you're always looking for water to drink."

Water that the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry said was tainted with a high level of chemicals and increased the risk of cancer for the up to 1 million marines and their families who drank it.

"It's the ATSDR's position that past exposures from 1950s to 1985 through a number of chemicals in the drinking water at Camp Lejeune likely increased the risks of cancers, adverse birth outcomes, and other adverse health effects in residents, civilian workers, Marines and Navy personnel at Camp Lejeune," said Dr. Pat Breysse, the director of the National Center for Environmental Health Agency and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. "We've communicated to the VA that we think there's an excess risk at the site that's associated with the chemicals."

The agency also just finished a study on male breast cancer, which Breysse said also supports a link between the rare disease and the water.

"The fact that it's rare makes it hard to study because there's a small number of cases and small errors in how you conduct your study, can be magnified when you have a small number of cases," said Breysse. "However, we think the study suggests that there's increased male breast cancer risk and it's something that we'll be following up in future studies."

Renna said he believes it, because for him, the story didn't stop at breast cancer.

"It went to lymphoma, which I just got treated my last shot yesterday, and now I have bladder cancer," said Renna. "I spent the last 18 years of my life going to doctors trying to get cured from this problem and one would developed over another."

Still, Renna has been denied and receives no disability benefits from the VA.

"I get nothing," said Renna. "I get headaches and heartaches and marks on my arm."

That decision from the VA despite the fact that Renna's own doctor said the water is likely the reason for his cancer.

"In fact, he wrote a letter to the VA stating that all three cancers are subcoincidental and they come from the problem at Lejeune," said Renna.

So he and his wife, Nancy, have been fighting.

"We have been doing this for at least five years, back and forth with the VA," said Nancy.

"Infuriating for you?" asked Holfeld.

"I feel there should be some accountability," said Renna. "Unbeknownst to him, he was drinking this contaminated water and then, 'Well, I got hurt.' 'Well, oh gee, too bad.' You know, from the VA."

Even if some veterans are granted presumptive service connection, it doesn't mean breast cancer will be included. The VA's initial announcement in August was that kidney cancer is one of the diseases the VA is considering for presumptive service connection, along with angiosarcoma of the liver and acute myelogenous leukemia. But there are still several other conditions those fighting for change said should be included.

"There are other diseases, for example, male breast cancer, bladder cancer, are strongly associated with solvent exposure, and there is medical evidence there to support that," said Mike Partain, a veterans' advocate. "So they're going to have to look at that with the ATSDR to rate it at presumptive."

Sources told News 6 other conditions were being considered. The ATSDR said it has made recommendations to the VA, but the decision is now in the VA's hands.

The Rennas said they hope that decision will help get Jim and what other Marines deserve.

"People serve our country and they love our country, and this is what they get?" said Nancy. "They turn their back on them."

"They just keep putting it back on the shelf," said Renna.

News 6 has asked the VA several times for a timeline on when the presumptive service connection decision will be made, and if the agency is considering adding other conditions, like breast cancer. We also asked once the designation has been made, whether eligible vets will be automatically granted their benefits, or whether they will need to file new claims in order to get them. A VA representative told News 6 she does not yet have those answers.

 

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