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Veterans Law

VA Disability Rating for Lymphoma and Toxic Exposures

July 2, 2021
VA Disability Rating for Lymphoma and Toxic Exposures

What is Lymphoma?

Lymphomas are cancers that start in the white blood cells, or lymphocytes.  There are two types of lymphocytes: B-cells and T-cells.  B cells create proteins called antibodies that help protect against bacteria and viruses.  T-cells destroy germs or abnormal cells in the body, as well as aid the activity of other immune cells.

There are multiple forms of lymphoma that can be categorized by the cells each cancer affects.

Types of Lymphoma

  • Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia—This form of lymphoma is a blood cancer that begins in the bone marrow.
  • Hodgkin Lymphoma—There are multiple subtypes of Hodgkin Lymphoma. The cancer cells in this form of lymphoma are called Reed-Sternberg cells.  They are an abnormal form of B-cells.  People who have classic Hodgkin lymphoma usually have enlarged lymph nodes with a small number of Reed-Sternberg cells and many surrounding normal immune cells.  These immune cells are what cause most of the swelling in the lymph nodes.
  • Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma—Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a cancer of the lymph glands and other lymphatic tissue, which are part of the body’s immune system that help to fight infection and disease.  Specifically, lymphatic tissue is found in the lymph nodes, spleen, and other organs of the immune system.

Diagnosing and Treating Lymphoma

Diagnosing lymphoma, and determining which form a person has, may require the specialty of a hematopathologist, or a doctor who specializes in the blood and cells of the body.  To make a formal diagnosis, the specialist may perform a physical examination, as well as review the person’s medical history.

A biopsy may also be performed to diagnose a specific form of lymphoma.  For example, a biopsy of a lymph node may be necessary to diagnose Hodgkin’s lymphoma.  The samples taken from a biopsy can then be analyzed and used to determine if cancer cells are present.

The treatment used for lymphoma will often depend on the form of lymphoma, the rate at which the cancer has progressed, and the person themselves.  Forms of treatment can include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, stem cell transplantation, immunotherapy, and more.

Service Connection for Lymphoma

In order to file a claim for service connection for any form of lymphoma, the veteran will usually need to demonstrate the link between their military service and their lymphoma.  Along with this link, or nexus, the veteran also needs to submit a formal diagnosis.  In total, the veteran will typically need to submit the following to VA:

  • A diagnosis of lymphoma;
  • An in-service event, illness, or injury; and
  • A nexus linking the veteran’s in-service occurrence with their lymphoma

In some instances, veterans who developed lymphoma as a result of exposure to specific toxins may be eligible for presumptive service connection.  The burden of proof is significantly less for veterans who qualify for presumptive service connection, as the veteran does not need to prove the connection between the in-service occurrence and their lymphoma.

To support the veteran’s claim for service connection, the veteran may submit lay evidence.  Lay evidence, or lay statements, can be written by the veteran or anyone who knows the veteran and can speak to their condition.  Importantly, lay evidence may also be submitted by fellow service members.

Compensation and Pension (C&P) Exams for Lymphoma

Oftentimes, VA will request a Compensation and Pension exam, or C&P exam.  This exam will usually be performed by a VA physician or VA contracted physician who may physically examine the veteran, as well as ask questions regarding the veteran’s military service and their symptoms.

To schedule a C&P exam, VA will usually call the veteran or send them a letter.  As such, it is crucial to ensure that VA has the veteran’s most up-to-date contact information.  If VA does not have the current contact information, the veteran might miss a C&P request.  If a veteran fails to attend an exam, or fails to reschedule one they have missed, their claim could be denied.

Prior to the exam, the examiner should review the veteran’s c-file.  The c-file will usually contain any documentation that has previously been submitted to VA, as well as the veteran’s medical and military service records.

The veteran may also use a DBQ, or Disability Benefits Questionnaire, to bolster their claim.  A Disability Benefits Questionnaire is a form created by VA so that the veteran may address important aspects of their condition, such as symptoms, severity, possible causes, and relation to other disabilities.  The veteran may also have their private doctor fill out a DBQ for them.  In claims for any form of lymphoma, DBQs can be helpful because a private doctor, such as the veteran’s hematopathologist, can provide insight into the veteran’s condition.

VA Disability Ratings for Lymphoma

Lymphomas are rated under 38 CFR § 4.117, which is the schedule of ratings for hemic and lymphatic systems.  Below the ratings for different forms of lymphomas are outlined:

Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia VA Ratings

Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia is rated under Diagnostic Code 7703.  Unlike other forms of cancers or leukemias, CLL does not have an inactive phase.  This means that VA never rates CLL as anemia, aplastic anemia, or on the residuals of the cancer.  As such, there is only one rating that can be given for CLL.

  • 100%—This rating, for leukemia, is given to veterans with an active leukemia disease or during a treatment phase. While other forms of leukemia may be rated under Diagnostic Code 7700 and Diagnostic Code 7716 for anemia and aplastic anemia, CLL is not because it does not have an inactive phase.

Additionally, the 100 percent rating for CLL continues, even after treatment has ceased.   

Hodgkin’s Lymphoma VA Ratings

Hodgkin’s lymphoma is rated under Diagnostic Code 7709.  Under this code, Hodgkin’s lymphoma will receive a 100 percent rating for being an active disease or within a treatment phase.  The rating will continue for as long as the veteran’s cancer is active, or they are undergoing treatment.  After six months, following the veteran’s treatment program, VA will schedule a C&P exam to re-evaluate their condition.  If the veteran’s cancer is in remission, then VA will evaluate the cancer based on its residuals.

Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma VA Ratings

VA rates non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma using Diagnostic Code 7115.  A 100 percent disability rating is assigned when the disease is active or during a treatment phase.  This rating continues for six months beyond the completion of any treatment, at which point the appropriate disability rating is determined by a mandatory VA examination.  If there is no recurrence of the disease itself, veterans will be rated based on its residuals.

VA Ratings for Lymphoma A 100 percent disability rating is assigned when the disease is active or during a treatment phase

Exposure and Lymphoma

Lymphomas have been linked to several different forms of exposure, such as herbicide exposure and burn pit exposure, in veterans who served in varying locations and time periods.

Agent Orange Exposure

One of the forms of exposure that has been linked to lymphomas is exposure to Agent Orange.  Agent Orange is one of several herbicides, or “rainbow herbicides,” that were used during the Vietnam War era.  Specifically, Agent Orange was a mixture of two different kinds of highly toxic chemicals: 2, 4-D and 2, 4, 5-T.  The highly toxic dioxin contaminant known as 2, 3, 7, 8-TCDD is a byproduct that is produced by Agent Orange.  Exposure to Agent Orange was not limited to Vietnam, however, as veterans came into contact with Agent Orange in other areas such as Thailand.

The Agent Orange Act of 1991 created a presumption of service connection for veterans who served in specific times and locations and have developed certain conditions as a result of their exposure.  Specifically, veterans who served in the following locations at the specified time periods are eligible for presumptive service connection:

  • Boots-on-the-ground in Vietnam, veterans with service aboard a ship that operated in the inland waterways of Vietnam (i.e., Brown Water veterans), or veterans with service aboard a ship in Vietnam’s territorial seas (i.e., Blue Water Navy veterans) between January 9, 1962 and May 7, 1975
  • On or near the Korean demilitarized zone (DMZ) between September 1, 1967 and August 31, 1971
  • Active duty and reservist personnel who had regular contact with C-123 aircraft between 1969 and 1986

Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and Chronic B-cell leukemia are all conditions which are eligible for presumptive service connection.  Essentially, this should make it easier for veterans to secure benefits, as they do not have to prove a medical nexus between their condition and their military service.

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Burn Pit Exposure

Military burn pits are large areas of land in which the military and its contractors incinerated all waste generated by military bases.  The United States military used burn pits as part of its waste disposal protocol in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan in the post-9/11 era.  The practice was effective in reducing large quantities of waste, but the pits emitted plumes of toxic smoke which were later found to cause damaging health effects.  Materials such as human and medical waste, plastic, rubber, petroleum, and ammunition were disposed of in burn pits.

Unlike Agent Orange exposure, there is currently no presumptive service connection for veterans exposed to burn pits.  Since there is no presumption, VA adjudicates burn pit claims on a case-by-case basis.

As of 2021, there are several major bills currently pending in Congress, that deal with the toxic exposure caused by burn pits.  These bills include:

  • Conceding Our Veterans’ Exposure Now and Necessitating Training Act (COVENANT)
  • Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act of 2021
  • Veterans Burn Pit Exposure Recognition Act
  • Toxic Exposure in the American Military Act (TEAM)

If passed, any of these bills would offer needed relief to veterans suffering the toxic effects of burn pit exposure.  Specifically, the COVENANT Act would make any form of lymphoma a presumptive condition for veterans who were exposed to burn pits.  If this were to pass, veterans would only need to provide evidence that they were exposed to burn pits, thus placing less of the burden of proof on the veteran.

Was Your VA Disability Claim Denied?

The accredited VA disability attorneys and advocates at Chisholm Chisholm & Kilpatrick LTD have decades of experience successfully representing veterans before the VA and the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. We may be able to help you with an appeal. Contact our office today at 800-544-9144 for a complimentary consultation.

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