How Does The VA Rate Cancer?
Cancer is a serious disease that can be debilitating. If you were diagnosed with cancer that can be linked to active military service, you may be eligible for disability benefits through the United States Department of Veterans Affairs.
Veterans with service-connected cancers can receive benefits during medical care and cancer treatment. Some disabled veterans will also experience their disabilities due to the residual effects of cancer.
In order to obtain this VA disability compensation, you first must prove service connection. This guide will break down what you need to know about the disability claim process and the VA rating for cancer.
What Is Cancer?
Cancer is a broad term that can refer to any abnormal growth of cells. It can occur anywhere in the body and begins when cells do not grow, divide, and die properly. This condition may spread and react differently, depending on the person. If cancers do spread, the cancerous cells will look the same regardless of where they’re found in the body.
Symptoms can include:
- Lumps anywhere in the body
- Thickening skin
- Unexplained bleeding
- Sores that won’t heal
- Changes in bathroom habits
- Persistent cough
- Persistent indigestion
- A raised mole on the skin
Note that these aren’t the only signs of cancer, nor are all of these symptoms always signs of cancer.
Cancer is a distinct disease, but it can sometimes be confused with benign tumors. Some growths in your body are harmless — at least at first. If you have a lump in your skin, it does not necessarily mean that you have cancer. You will need to have it checked out by a doctor before jumping to conclusions.
According to the VA, the most common types of cancer diagnosed in VA patients are:
- Prostate cancer
- Lung cancer and bronchial cancers
- Colorectal cancers
- Urinary and bladder cancer
- Skin cancer and melanomas
If you are found to have cancer and believe it was due to your time in the military, you can file for a disability rating through the VA.
Service Connection for Cancer
Cancer can happen to anyone at any time, regardless of whether a person is in the military. This can make it difficult to link the time in service to cancer. Even though certain conditions, such as stress and trauma, are known to weaken the body’s system in response to a perceived or real threat, this is generally not enough to establish a connection. However, if you can show that you were exposed to known cancer-causing agents or processes, you can file for disability benefits for your cancer.
Here’s what you’ll need to get your claim started:
- A current diagnosis from your doctor
- Description of the events that led to the cancer
- A statement from your doctor confirming that the cancer was caused by your time in the service
Some veterans may have developed cancer due to radiation exposure. For example, you may have participated in a radiation-risk activity, such as nuclear weapons testing. Nuclear exposure has been linked to a number of cancers, including bile duct, urinary tract, bone, brain, breast, colon, gall bladder, liver, pancreas, and stomach. You may also be diagnosed with certain blood cancers, such as leukemia.
Agent Orange Exposure
Another common culprit for cancer in veterans is Agent Orange, which was used for chemical warfare during the Vietnam War. According to the VA, exposure to this herbicide chemical is likely to have put many Vietnam veterans, especially Blue Water Navy veterans, at risk for certain cancers. The chemical has been linked to soft-tissue sarcoma, prostate, lung, Hodgkin’s disease, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and leukemia.
If you were on the ground in Vietnam between 1962 and 1975, you may have been exposed to this harmful herbicide. Keep in mind that the VA considers these cancers to be presumptive conditions for this group of Vietnam veterans, so you won’t be required to prove service connection.
To prove a service connection, you’ll need to show that you were subjected to cancer-causing elements. However, you generally won’t be subjected to further questioning. It is presumed if you developed these ailments after confirmed exposure, it was because of your time in service.
Secondary Service Connection for Cancer
A secondary service rating for cancer is one that proves that your disorder was caused by another condition that you developed in the military. By the VA’s definitions though, this may be somewhat difficult to prove and will still generally require that you were exposed to some sort of known cancer agent, such as radiation.
In one case, a service member applied for secondary service-connected breast cancer as a byproduct of fibrocystic breast disease. This was due to the member’s exposure to ionizing radiation. Talking to a doctor can help you understand if there’s a link between a service-related disease and a secondary one.
If your doctor agrees that one caused the other, they will need to have them submit an explanation as to why. Please note that this is not the same as asking for an increased rating with the VA. You are presenting a new disability, and thereby requesting an assessment based on the severity of the secondary condition.
Service Connection by Aggravation | What if you were diagnosed with cancer before service?
Cancer is a major red flag when it comes to being accepted into the military. With the exception of basal cell carcinoma, you’re likely to be denied if you had malignant tumors in the past. You may also be denied if you have benign tumors, especially if they interfere with your ability to perform your duties or if they’re likely to become malignant at some point in the future. However, if you can prove that your cancer returned due to incidents that took place during your service, you can file for service connection by aggravation.
Compensation & Pension (C&P) Exams for Cancer
A Compensation & Pension (C&P) exam is the VA’s way of clarifying what your doctor has to say about your condition. It is not meant to help you alleviate or treat your disorder, but to qualify certain statements and have a second opinion on record by a certified VA health professional.
You’re usually asked to complete a C&P exam after submitting all your paperwork through the VA Regional Office (RO). With cancer, the presumption is that if you can prove exposure to Agent Orange or radiation, then there will be little debate about whether it was service-connected. However, in some cases, the RO may still want you to see a VA doctor, especially if you’re filing for a secondary service connection.
During the exam, the doctor may take a biopsy of your tumor, draw blood, and ask general questions about your time in the military. Please note that the cause of your cancer can have been at any point while you were in the service. You do not necessarily need to be on base and on active duty to qualify. So if you were exposed to Agent Orange during your free time in Vietnam, you can still file for a primary service connection.
What Is The VA Disability Rating For Cancer?
If your disability claim proves that your cancer was caused by your time in the military, you’re generally rated at the highest possible level (100). The RO will consider anything from sample results to medical statements to determine your result. Please note that a secondary condition will typically be more scrutinized than a primary condition in this case.
A 100 rating will qualify you for full VA benefits. This rating will also qualify your family members, including children, spouse, or dependent parents, for benefits as well. However, this rating is generally considered temporary and will last for as long as the compensable cancer persists (plus six months following a successful treatment program). You will then be assigned a new rating once your cancer is in remission, which is usually a reduced rating based on any residual effects of your cancer.
For example, if you have lung cancer, you would receive a 100 rating during cancer and six months after treatment. You would then receive a new disability rating for lung cancer residuals, such as shortness of breath and other breathing problems.
TDIU for Cancer
There’s no doubt that cancer is an unwelcome diagnosis for anyone. If you’re looking for Total Disability based on Individual Unemployability (TDIU), you’re likely to get it if you submit documentation to show that you came into harmful substances or energy. Even after your cancer is in remission though, you may still be able to file for additional benefits depending on the symptoms that persist from cancer treatment. Considering you’ll be reevaluated either way after the cancer has passed, filing for additional benefits is an excellent way to ensure you get the consideration you need even when you’re technically in recovery.
Have Questions About VA Disability Benefits for Cancer?
If you have questions about applying for VA disability benefits for cancer, or if the VA has denied your claim, the attorneys at Hill & Ponton are available to help. Our law firm focuses on veterans disability law, helping former service members navigate VA forms, applications, and appeals. Contact us today for a free case evaluation.