For Martha and Russell Pelc, the nightmare began one afternoon in March 2018.
Russ had gotten home from his job as a forklift mechanic at a Gaston County factory. A strapping 6-foot-3, he’d been feeling weak for a while and waking with occasional night sweats. That day he’d had trouble breathing.
“We need to go to the doctor,” he told his wife.
So they drove 60 miles to the VA Medical Center in Salisbury. Pelc was admitted and went through a battery of tests and X-rays. On his second night, a doctor walked into his room at 2 a.m. and told him he was gravely ill. An ambulance rushed him to Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, where he would be diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of blood cancer.
So began eight months of medical and bureaucratic agony for the 58-year-old Army veteran and his wife, 55. By the time Russ Pelc died on Nov. 9, his wife had lost faith in the VA and the Army.
“It’s just been horrible,” Martha Pelc says. “We should just take better care of our servicemen.”
A McClatchy investigation of cancer rates among veterans in the nearly two decades since the Sept. 11 attacks shows that the number of cancer cases treated by the VA health care system has skyrocketed.
The review, based on Freedom of Information Act requests for every unique cancer treatment provided by a VA health care facility from fiscal years 2000 to 2018 found the rates of blood cancers — lymphoma, myeloma and leukemia — rose 18% in the same period. Other cancers increased as much as 96%.
The VA has disagreed with McClatchy’s findings. However data from its internal cancer registry that the agency provided also shows a significant rise during a similar time frame. According to that, the number of blood cancers increased 41%, from 2000 to 2017.
Waiting for treatment
Russ Pelc was more than a statistic.
Born in Illinois, he grew up in Arkansas. He enlisted at 27. During nearly three years on active duty and three more in the Reserves, he served on at least five U.S. bases.
When he returned, he put his mechanical skills to use in jobs including maintaining safety valves at Duke Energy nuclear plants. He was a certified Porsche mechanic and fooled around on cars at home.
At Baptist Hospital in 2018, he underwent a grueling regimen of chemotherapy. Every time he started to show improvement there was a relapse. “We pretty much lived at the hospital for six months,” Martha Pelc says.
That September, doctors sent him to Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte (now Atrium). His best shot, they said, was a kind of immunotherapy called CAR T that uses modified T cells from a patient’s blood — part of the immune system — to fight cancers like his.
There, Pelc says, they waited. And waited.
“I kept wondering, ‘Why are they stalling?’” she says. “We had held on to every last hope and this was the last one.”
Pelc says they learned the treatment would cost nearly $500,000. The VA, she was told, capped its assistance to half that. A VA spokeswoman said there are no monetary caps on treatment.
(According to Atrium’s Levine Cancer Institute, Pelc’s health had deteriorated to the point where he wasn’t a good clinical candidate for the immunotherapy treatment. “Unfortunately, by the time Mr. Pelc was referred to Levine . . . our clinicians determined he was not a candidate for the CAR T-cell therapy,” the hospital said in a statement.)
At the time, Pelc wanted to do something. So she wrote to more than two dozen N.C. legislators pleading her case.
“I’m writing to you out of utter desperation,” she wrote. “My husband has been deemed a suitable candidate for CAR t by three different physicians. Our time is ticking away and this needs to happen! Please find it in your heart to assist us in any way you can.”
She got one reply. It came from Monica Fuller, a legislative assistant to then-Sen. Joel Ford.
Base linked to cancers
Fuller, 35, was an Army veteran. She was also the daughter of a Marine who’d been stationed at Camp Lejeune, an N.C. base with documented history of cancers caused by water contamination.
“When I got an email from Martha, I said, ‘I need a list of everywhere your husband was stationed’,” Fuller recalls.
One place, she found, was Fort Riley, Kansas. A federal Superfund site, it had been contaminated by several kinds of chemicals called PFAS, or polyfluoroalkyl substances, which are linked to cancer. Fuller shared her own toxicology research with Pelc. She also found VA cases of other veterans who’d been stationed at Fort Riley and developed non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, like Russell Pelc.
“Our office strongly believes his cancer is . . . tied to some form (of) harmful chemical exposure while he served in the US Army,” Fuller later wrote.
Experts say it’s possible that Pelc’s service at Fort Riley led to his cancer more than 35 years later.
“The latency period can be decades,” says David Andrews, senior scientist with The Environmental Working Group.
All that was news to Martha Pelc and her husband.
“We were blindsided,” says Pelc, her voice cracking. “It absolutely floored us.”
Just before that Halloween, she says doctors told the couple they were stopping treatment. Russ Pelc died two weeks later.
“It’s just been horrible,” says Martha Pelc. “It was a nightmare from the beginning.”
Tara Copp, Shirsho Dasgupta and Ben Wieder of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed.