Prostate cancer is the second leading cause of male cancer-related deaths. According to the American Cancer Society, about one in nine men will be diagnosed with this disease during his lifetime. The average individual is diagnosed while in their 60’s. Unfortunately, many Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange are now suffering from Bladder Cancer.
The prostate gland is located under the bladder. Prostate cancer cells start on this organ and may spread to other parts of the body. It can be difficult to diagnose prostate cancer, since it typically doesn’t show early symptoms. So, regular screenings are key. Risk factors for prostate cancer include family history and age. It’s also common in African-American and Afro-Caribbean men.
Exposure to certain chemicals, such as Agent Orange, may also put individuals at risk for prostate cancer. This is why Vietnam War veterans need to be aware of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ stance on prostate cancer and Agent Orange exposure.
This guide will outline how the VA rates prostate cancer for disability compensation claims, as well as what Vietnam veterans should know when seeking VA benefits for this condition.
How The VA Rates Prostate Cancer
The VA has established a rating system for prostate cancer based on the severity of the symptoms. This rating system falls under genitourinary conditions (38 CFR §4.115a). Prostate cancer is rated according to voiding dysfunction or urinary tract infection (whichever is more severe).
If surgery is required for prostate cancer, the VA will award a temporary 100 percent rating post-surgery. The VA will schedule a follow-up exam at a VA medical center about six months after the surgery (sometimes this exam falls almost a year after the surgery) in order to determine whether or not the 100 percent rating is still warranted.
If there is no metastasis, the VA will then rate the residuals according to voiding dysfunction or renal dysfunction (whichever is predominant), which usually comes to a 10 percent rating. Court cases have determined that the VA can reduce the 100 percent rating only after the cessation of surgical, X-ray, antineoplastic chemotherapy, or other therapeutic procedure. The term “therapeutic” according to DC 7528 is interpreted as the procedures to cure cancer and the disease.
When the VA decides to cease the 100 percent temporary rating or reduce a current rating, they will send the veteran notice of a proposed reduction of benefits. The letter will most likely give the veteran a deadline to respond. If the veteran is still experiencing disabling symptoms of prostate cancer and believes that he is still entitled to the current rating, he should have his doctor fill out the Form 21-0960J-3, Disability Benefits Questionnaire for Prostate Cancer. This form, completed by the health care provider, would serve as evidence that the veteran is entitled to the current rating.
Vietnam Veterans & Prostate Cancer
Veterans who served in Vietnam are now reaching their mid-60’s, which is the age at which prostate cancer is usually diagnosed. This means that we are seeing an influx of prostate cancer cases.
Roughly eight million men in the US served in Vietnam. And according to recent studies, almost 1.4 million men are predicted to develop prostate cancer in their lifetime. A 2013 study conducted at the Portland VA Medical Center and Oregon Health and Science University found that Veterans exposed to Agent Orange are not only at higher risk for prostate cancer, but they also have an increased risk for more aggressive forms of the disease.
Agent Orange, as we have discussed in previous Agent Orange blog posts, has been found to cause many serious health problems. The VA has recognized fourteen different diseases and cancers as being related to Agent Orange exposure. These conditions are considered “presumptive diseases,” meaning that the VA will grant service-connection for these conditions as long as the veteran was in Vietnam. Some of the diseases on this list include non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, soft tissue sarcoma, and ischemic heart disease.
The VA regulations mandate that any veteran who served in Vietnam (or, now, in some other areas where Agent Orange was stored or sprayed) during the relevant time period is presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange. Under upcoming expected changes to VA law, Blue Water veterans who served on ships that were docked in certain harbors will soon be added to the list of veterans who are presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange.
Prostate cancer is one of the diseases on this presumptive list. Research has shown that Agent Orange was contaminated with the toxin 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD) as a by-product of chemical manufacturing and that this toxin is a suspected cause of cancer.
Individual Unemployability & Special Monthly Compensation
For Blue Water veterans who are finally able to take advantage of the presumption of service connection for prostate cancer based on Agent Orange exposure, it is important to make sure that the VA has rated your condition correctly and has not reduced your benefits if you are still entitled to them. It is also important to apply for a secondary service connection for any conditions that are caused by your prostate cancer. You should also apply for Total Disability Rating based on Individual Unemployability if your prostate cancer prevents you from obtaining and maintaining a gainful occupation. If you are unable to work because of prostate cancer, it is important to file a claim for individual unemployability with the VA, not only so you receive benefits at the 100 percent rate, but so you can receive Special Monthly Compensation as well.
Special Monthly Compensation (SMC) is compensation that is awarded above and beyond the 100 percent disability payments for conditions that are more serious and more debilitating than for which the 100 percent rate is able to compensate. For instance, you may be eligible for SMC is you are housebound or need aid and attendance. Or, you may be able to receive SMC for the loss of use a creative organ. Note that SMC is not a separate claim, and is instead part of the original appeal. When you appeal for a higher rating for prostate cancer, it is a good idea to also appeal for individual unemployability and any SMC to which you are entitled.
For Blue Water veterans who will finally be eligible for presumptive service connection under the expected changes to VA law, it is important to know what benefits are available to you so you do not leave any benefits that you are owed on the table.
The attorneys at Hill & Ponton are available to help U.S. military veterans seek VA disability compensation for conditions connected to military service. If you are a Vietnam veteran experiencing prostate cancer, contact us today for a free case evaluation.