SARASOTA, Fla. – Marine veteran Tom Gervasi has spent the last 10 years fighting cancer and the U.S. government.
The 76-year-old Sarasota man has a rare form of breast cancer that he believes is due to contaminated drinking water at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, where he trained in the mid-1950s.
On Friday, Gervasi went into the hospital so doctors could snake a camera into his lungs to check for cancerous lesions. He's been coughing and short of breath in recent months, and can barely shuffle from his living room to his screened-in porch without leaning on his cane and stopping to catch his breath.
Gervasi said he is struggling to stay alive so he can win compensation from the government and not leave his wife, Elaine, with any of his medical debt. They will mark their 57th wedding anniversary on March 24. When they retired to Florida nearly a dozen years ago, they assumed they would play tennis, walk the beach and travel the world.
Those plans haven't been possible because of Gervasi's illness, not even quick jaunts up north to visit their grandchildren. The couple has focused solely on Gervasi's seemingly endless doctors' appointments and trying to convince the Department of Veterans Affairs that the contaminated water caused the cancer.
According to a VA fact sheet, "at this time available scientific and clinical evidence is not sufficient to establish a presumptive association between service at Camp Lejeune and any subsequent development of particular diseases."
The Gervasis both have a robust sense of humor and Tom still displays the demeanor of the strapping ex-police detective that he once was, trying to smile and joke around his anger.
"I love life. I'm not ready to die. You know, I believe in God. When God wants to take me, God will take me. But I'm fighting to stay alive," he said.
VA spokesman Randal Noller wrote in an email Friday that the agency couldn't discuss individual cases without a signed privacy waiver form.
Despite no scientific link between the water and disease, federal officials have acknowledged problems.
Health officials believe as many as 1 million people may have been exposed to tainted water. A VA representative has said the approval rate for claims related to the contamination is about 25 percent so far. As of September, the VA had granted 17 breast cancer claims and denied 13 others. Not all were men.
In March 2003, Elaine noticed that the nipple on her husband's left breast was inverted and the skin nearby was dimpled and urged him to get a mammogram. The results were unusual and devastating: he had breast cancer. While the disease affects one in eight women, it affects just one in 1,000 men.
After his left breast and 31 lymph nodes were removed and after he endured chemotherapy and radiation, a cousin showed him a news article. People who had been stationed at Lejeune were getting cancer at abnormally high rates — among the cases were a troubling pattern of men with breast cancer — and authorities were looking into whether contaminated drinking water was the cause. Gervasi had trained at Lejeune in 1956.
A 2012 law granted health care and screening to Lejeune Marines and their dependents who were on base for at least 30 days between 1957 and 1987.
Gervasi missed the cutoff by about six months.
His compensation was denied.
"Initially when they said, 'well, you left June 30, 1956, so that means you didn't drink the water,' how is that possible?" Gervasi said. "The contamination in the water was there. I've got three pages of carcinogens that were found in the water that we drank. How can they say it only happened after Jan. 1, 1957?"
Gervasi understands the VA is swamped with claims from the country's latest wars. But that doesn't mean it can renege on commitments made to past generations.
"There are thousands of guys that need help, and the VA is just fighting them," he said. "I feel bad for the kids that are coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq. They deserve all the help they can get. But, you know, the old guys, like me, we still need help."
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry said in a report earlier this month that an industrial solvent called TCE likely first exceeded the maximum contaminant level in August 1953. Evidence shows it might go back as far as November 1948. TCE is now a known human carcinogen. Other carcinogens were also found.
The agency is working on four studies expected to be released this year and next including one on male breast cancer.
But Gervasi doesn't have that kind of time. He takes 17 pills a day and knows that the cancer is eating away inside him.
"As my disease is in the advanced stages, I don't expect to see the amended date come to pass in the time I have remaining," he wrote in a letter to President Barack Obama. "However, I want to rest in peace with the knowledge assurance that (1) my Marine brothers were not betrayed by our country, (2) my spouse will be provided for after I'm gone and (3) my suffering was not in vain."
Mike Partain is a Marine's son born at the southeast North Carolina base and says he is one of at least 82 Lejeune men diagnosed with breast cancer. He sent emails to Florida Senators Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson this week, demanding action on Gervasi's case.
"What gives?" wrote Partain. "Tom does not have much time left. We owe it to him to get him over the finish line so that he may die in peace."