(and why this may be a Good Thing for Veterans)
When we (and the VA) think of carcinogens, it seems pretty straight forward. Chemical A causes cancer by mutating our DNA. Chemical B does not mutate our DNA, and therefore does not cause cancer. Therefore, a veteran who was exposed to chemical B is NOT eligible for service connection, as that chemical is not a mutagen.
However, the underlying cause of 57% of all cancer is completely unexplained, and there are HUGE gaps in the research we’ve done linking the chemicals to which we’re exposed and cancer. This is something the cancer research community is very concerned about. So over 100 of the top cancer researchers from around the world have formed a task force called the Halifax Project Task Force. Their aim is to begin to understand how cancer may be caused not by one or two chemicals, but by two or more chemicals, even at very low exposures.
I’ve written before and briefly touched on “The Hallmarks of Cancer.” Put simply, these are a number of things that can go wrong in our cells, and one or a combination of these processes can lead to cancer. The major hallmarks are:
Self-sufficiency in growth signals (“accelerator pedal stuck on”)
Insensitivity to anti-growth signals (“brakes don’t work”)
Evading apoptosis (won’t die when the body normally would kill the defective cell)
Limitless replicative potential (infinite generations of descendants)
Sustained angiogenesis (telling the body to give it a blood supply)
Tissue invasion and metastasis (migrating and spreading to other organs and tissues)
Evading the immune system (the immune system is unable to detect and/or destroy it)
Genome instability and mutation (changed in the code of one cell are passed down to “daughter” cells)
Tumor-promoting inflammation (when an area is inflammed, the body believes it needs to heal the area, and sends “healing signals” that actually help the cancer cells.)
Now, if Chemical A causes the “accelerator pedal” to be stuck on-this cell gets a signal to replicate again and again. However, the body doesn’t have any problems “applying the brakes,” telling the cell to stop replicating until they can be repaired, or undergo apoptosis (cell-suicide.) The problem is likely to stop. In fact, many of these problems are happening ALL THE TIME in our body. But our cells are amazing at fixing themselves. However, when several of these problems come together, the body may not be able to stop the cancerous cells, and we have a major problem.
Imagine you’re in the Navy, on the U.S.S. Cell. The general emergency alarm sounds, and you jump out of your rack. There’s a fire in the galley. Everyone on board has been trained for this moment, and everyone goes about their jobs of getting ready. But everything is going wrong. First, no detectors went off, so the fire had a chance to spread until a seaman doing the rounds saw the smoke. Then, the installed extinguishing system didn’t fire off. Next, the fire extinguishers in the galley wouldn’t fire. The portal to the galley is stuck, so you can’t contain the fire. It’s spreading, and by the time you get the hose team down there, it has spread to the mess deck. The nozzleman points the nozzle at the fire, and opens the valve, and nothing happens.
Anywhere in this series of unfortunate events, if something had gone right, the fire would have been extinguished, with damage and casualties kept to a minimum. But little, seemingly tiny things- poor maintenance done to the portal to the galley or the extinguishers, or someone forgetting to connect the other end of the hose-can have disastrous consequences.
This is what this research is showing us. That we are often exposed to several toxins that may not necessarily do a lot of damage on their own, especially in low doses, but when combined with other chemicals, even low doses can cause an unfortunate confluence of events that lead to cancer. The VA, along with most of us, has been looking at cancer in an overly simplistic way. To use my analogy above, the VA states that grease in the galley causes fires. But they’re ignoring the fact that faulty extinguishers, a lack of training in the fire team, or an inability to compartmentalize the ship is also just as much to blame.
Veterans are exposed to many harmful chemicals during their service, and many of these chemicals cause different problems in the cell that contribute to cancer. This new research shows us that some cancers in veterans are likely NOT due to a single chemical, but to several chemicals acting in concert to cause cancer, with many of the effects going unnoticed for 20 or more years after service. It is likely not difficult to find a veteran who was exposed to DDT pesticide (which has been shown to affect Insensitivity to anti-growth signals (“brakes don’t work”), as well as BPA, which is found in carbonless paper and has been implicated in resistance to “cell-suicide” and triclosan, found in hand sanitizer and which has been implicated in helping cancerous cells avoid the immune system. The VA would currently be unlikely to grant service connection for this vet’s cancer. Perhaps in the future, they will.