VA offers innovative care and research for veterans fighting cancer

Partnerships are enhancing the services and work done to help veterans beat the disease

The VA is one of the largest providers of cancer care in the nation, treating nearly 500,000 veterans annually. Cancer is the second leading cause of death for veterans, specifically lung cancer-- with prostate cancer being the most diagnosed form of the disease.

To get results for veterans, the VA has partnered with different organizations for things like clinical trials, to expand research and offer more options to veterans for the best possible outcome.

“So the VA has a great Cancer Research Program. But we start with the diagnosis of cancer in patients which can be quite upsetting to them. The VA is here to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with veterans who are diagnosed with cancer through their cancer treatment and and journey,” said Dr. Michael Kelley, National Program Director for Oncology, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. “But we also want to advance new knowledge to be able to improve that cancer care. And we do that through several different ways, one of which is clinical trials, which brings new or improved treatments to veterans to be tried. And the other way we do that is by looking at data about how other veterans had been treated. And because we have so many veterans across the country have been treated, we’re able to discover new things by looking at that information.”

The VA has a comprehensive cancer program for veterans who are diagnosed with cancer, that includes diagnosis, screening and treatment and also supportive services for any symptoms that develop during that process. Kelley said the VA has experts in several different types of cancer, but they also partner with some of the leading cancer institutes in the country to be able to offer more options, several of which are through telehealth.

“We’re able to deliver that care by telehealth to the veteran rather than the veteran having to come to the cancer center, which might be hundreds of miles away. So that’s a lot of the different treatments that we have our advanced treatments in terms of genetics, we have advanced radiation oncology treatments, and other types of treatments, which are cutting edge,” said Kelley. “That option should happen automatically at the centers where that’s available now. But any veteran who’s been treated for cancer in the VA system can ask their provider to get a second opinion from an expert, and that can be done electronically through the Health Record System. So a veteran could advocate for themselves in that manner. We’re happy to provide that second opinion, either to the patient’s provider, to talk to the provider who’s taking care of the veteran, or we can have a video or voice interview with the patient and the expert clinician.”

They’re also working with the Department of Defense and the National Cancer Institute with the goal of reducing cancer deaths by 50%. The VA also partners with private foundations, from whom they get new ideas and funding. That’s where some of the clinical trials come in.

“Being considered for a clinical trial is part of standard clinical practice for patients with cancer, it should happen automatically. But it’s totally appropriate for a veteran to ask if they’re a candidate for a clinical trial, if there’s a clinical trial available for them locally, or if they are interested in traveling, if there’s one that is further away, that would be appropriate for them,” said Kelley. “We’re happy to help find clinical trials for veterans, not every veteran would be available to be eligible for a clinical trial. But we’re always interested in making sure that veterans know all of their options, so that they can make informed decisions about how they want their care to occur.”

Kelley pointed out that if a veteran has had a specific exposure during their time in the military, for example, at Camp Lejeune or in Vietnam, or the toxic burn pits, to make sure to bring that to the provider’s attention so all possible avenues are explored or if there’s a specific screening they should have done.

But in the meantime, there are things veterans can do to try to minimize their risk of getting cancer.

“Smoking is the by far the most avoidable cause of cancer, so don’t smoke. And if you are smoking, try to reduce the amount of that you’re smoking or get off of it entirely. Second, is stay out of the sun or use protection if you’re in the sun, because that causes skin cancer, and that can be prevented. There are some vaccines that can prevent certain types of cancers now, one of them is the HPV vaccine. So talk to your doctor about whether that’s appropriate for you,” said Kelley. “And then if you also want to talk to your doctor about cancer screening, there are certain types of cancers that we can detect early and prevent deaths from those cancers, colon cancer, lung cancer, and for women, breast and cervical cancers, talk to your doctor about when those are appropriate for you. There’s also some things that you can do personally, that to reduce your risk of getting cancer, and that’s to maintain a healthy body weight, to eat a healthy diet, and to exercise. And finally, if cancer seems to run in your family, talk to your doctor about whether genetic testing is right for you.”

For more information on the resources available for veterans fighting cancer, click here.

About the Author:

Tara Evans is an executive producer and has been with News 6 since January 2013. She currently spearheads News 6 at Nine and specializes in stories with messages of inspiration, hope and that make a difference for people -- with a few hard-hitting investigations thrown in from time to time.