By Jeffrey Kopman
U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War ended in 1973, but the effects of nearly two decades of chemical warfare are still being felt by American veterans today.
Exposure to the dangerous herbicide Agent Orange in Vietnam has been linked to a 52 percent overall increased risk of prostate cancer in Vietnam vets, according to an analysis published in the American Cancer Society journal Cancer. The researchers concluded that there was no increased risk for low-grade prostate cancer from Agent Orange, but there was a 75 percent increase in the risk of high-grade prostate cancer.
For some Vietnam veterans, like Terry Dillon of Columbus, Ohio, exposure to Agent Orange was not taken into account during their prostate cancer diagnosis.
“No doctors, and I’ve seen quite a few, ever asked me about my exposure to Agent Orange,” said Dillon, a 40-year member of the military who spent one year in Vietnam at the Nha Trang Air Base.
That base carried out Operation Ranch Hand, in which nearly 20 million gallons of Agent Orange was sprayed over Vietnam crops, in an effort to damage the Vietnamese ability to farm food. This is what led to Dillon’s exposure to Agent Orange.
“We got exposed to it differently than other Army guys. When the aircraft would come back it was usually shot up with small arms ammunition, which left holes in the aircraft and the tanks with Agent Orange in them,” Dillon explained. “The tanks leaked inside of the aircraft, and it was several inches deep. Nobody at that time thought there was any kind of problem with it.”
But in 2008, Dillon, a testicular cancer survivor, was diagnosed with prostate cancer believed to be the result of Agent Orange exposure.
“Prostate cancer in veterans from my era is one of the indications of Agent Orange exposure. The (U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs) won’t come out and say ‘absolutely that is linked to Agent Orange,’ but it basically is,” he believes.
The Agent Orange-Prostate Cancer Link
The researchers who wrote the Cancer article analyzed medical records of 2,720 veterans who were treated at the Portland Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Oregon. They found that 896 veterans (32.9 percent) had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. More than half of veterans who had been diagnosed with prostate cancer had a high-grade, aggressive form of the disease. More of these veterans were exposed to Agent Orange (8.3 percent) than the remaining 1,824 veterans who had not been diagnosed with prostate cancer (7.1 percent).
The details of a person’s exposure to something like Agent Orange can make a big difference in their risk, explained David B. Samadi, MD, Urologist and Chief of Robotics and Minimal Invasive Surgery at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, who was not involved with the study. “The closer you are to the source, the amount, and the duration of exposure have a huge correlation with the chance of developing prostate cancer.”
“Along the same lines as people in the World Trade Center on 9/11, with a lot of chemical debris exposure, we see some really aggressive forms of prostate cancer,” added Dr. Samadi. “It can change the DNA and send a cell into a different cycle, making it a cancer cell.”
The study author’s concluded that the new information would help diagnose aggressive prostate cancer earlier. “Incorporating Agent Orange exposure history into decision-making for prostate cancer screening among veterans may help to better predict clinically significant prostate cancer while not adding to the number of clinically insignificant prostate cancer diagnoses,” they wrote.
Agent Orange and Prostate Cancer Survivor
Terry Dillon saw several doctors about his prostate cancer, but most said he was untreatable, and even gave him as little as three to five years to live. Fortunately, the doctors at Cleveland Clinic in Ohio were able to successfully remove the cancer from Dillon’s prostate and the areas it had spread to.
Dillon is a prostate cancer survivor even without the benefit of early detection and knowledge of the prostate cancer risks associated with Agent Orange. Other veterans might not be so fortunate.
When asked if he knew other veterans with similar health problems, Dillon’s answer was an emphatic yes.
“Agent Orange: A Red Alert for Aggressive Prostate Cancer” originally appeared on Everyday Health.