Cancer Research Getting New VA Effort as Burn Pit-Linked Cases Expected to Rise

A senior airman burns uniform items.
An airman tosses unserviceable uniform items into a burn pit in Balad, Iraq, March 10, 2008. (Senior Airman Julianne Showalter/U.S. Air Force photo)

The Department of Veterans Affairs and Stanford University's medical school are planning to launch a cancer research and treatment center at the VA's Palo Alto, Calif., hospital, the organizations announced Friday.

While plans for the center are in very preliminary stages, officials said they hope to have the center open in as little as five years through an agreement the VA and Stanford Medicine signed Friday.

The plan comes as the need for cancer care at the VA is expected to rise as more veterans develop cancers suspected to be linked to their service and after the PACT Act made it easier for those veterans to seek health care and benefits from the department.

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"Every single veteran who wore the uniform, who wore the cloth of our country, deserves the best and most state-of-the-art care," Shereef Elnahal, the VA's under secretary for health, said at a news conference Friday about the partnership.

Officials shared few details about the specific plans for the center, including how much it is expected to cost and where the funding will come from.

David Entwistle, president and CEO of Stanford Health Care, added that "many conversations, considerations and approvals" are still needed on the project.

The center is being pursued under a memorandum of understanding that Elnahal said was facilitated by the PACT Act.

"Stanford has been in need of a new cancer center for a long time and so has the VA, and now our overlapping interests can finally work to advance veteran care for generations to come," Elnahal said.

Already, about 50,000 cancer cases are reported annually to the VA's Central Cancer Registry, a database VA medical center staffers use to help track and evaluate cancer outcomes. Those numbers are expected to rise as the PACT Act, which was signed into law last year, is implemented.

The PACT Act designated 23 diseases as presumed to be linked to burn pits used during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and other airborne pollutants and environmental hazards from earlier conflicts, meaning veterans with those ailments will now have a streamlined process for claiming health-care and disability benefits.

Of the 23 presumptive diseases, about half are different types of cancer: melanoma, brain cancer, neck cancer, pancreatic cancer, kidney cancer, glioblastoma, head cancer of any type, respiratory cancer of any type, reproductive cancer of any type, gastrointestinal cancer of any type, lymphoma of any type and lymphatic cancer of any type.

In addition to an increase of toxic exposure-related cancers, the aging demographics of veterans are also expected to bring an increase of cancer cases, Elnahal said.

The center also fits into the Biden administration's focus on finding new treatments and slashing the death rate for cancer. The initiative, known as the Cancer Moonshot, was first launched by President Joe Biden when he was vice president and revived earlier this year.

Biden's attention on cancer came after his son Beau died of glioblastoma in 2015. Biden has said he suspects his son's fatal cancer was caused by the burn pits he was exposed to while serving in Iraq and Kosovo with the Delaware National Guard.

"This is a personal mission for the president," Elnahal said. "The Cancer Moonshot has a very ambitious goal of reducing cancer mortality by 50% in the coming years. And of course, within that, are the cancers, in many cases rare and aggressive cancers, that our veterans experience because of their toxic exposures during their service."

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

Related: VA to Move Veterans with Cancer to Front of the PACT Act Line

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