DEADLY PARASITE FROM VIETNAM NOW WIDOW'S BATTLE
Cholangiocarcinoma is a rare cancer of the bile ducts caused by parasites found in some drinking water
Veteran's widow battles killer parasite from Vietnam
Horseheads woman raises alert about cancer-causing disease
by Roger Neumann
In the cruel way that war sometimes works, Vietnam killed Pete Harrison nearly 36 years after he came home.
Elusive as they were, Pete thought he knew his enemies over there. The Viet Cong. The North Vietnamese. Their sympathizers.
Nobody ever warned him about parasites in the water he drank, but they were there. Nobody ever mentioned the parasites could cause cancer, but they could. Nobody ever told him that cholangiocarcinoma might kill him some day, but it did.
Now his widow, Sheila Harrison of Horseheads, is fighting her own war -- against the disease that took her husband's life.
She does it by alerting other Vietnam veterans, and the health care workers who treat them, to check for this deadly disease. Early and often.
Cholangiocarcinoma is a rare cancer of the bile ducts, which drain bile from the liver to the gallbladder and into the small intestine.
Symptoms don't usually develop in the early stages, so the cancer often is well advanced by the time it's discovered.
"It's a miserable, miserable disease," Sheila said.
Edward "Pete" Harrison was 58 when he died four years ago next Wednesday -- on Jan. 20, 2006.
The following year, the Department of Veterans Affairs ruled that his death was service-connected. Sheila was awarded widows' benefits -- small consolation.
She said it was the VA's first such ruling related to that disease and service in Vietnam. The department has now issued a total of six, she said, "with many more in the works."
Pete survived wounds from multiple shell fragments in Vietnam, where he served from 1969 to 1970 with the 1st Infantry Division.
But after he was diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma in 2005, he was dead within six months.
Now, Sheila urges other vets not to wait until it's too late.
If you Google cholangiocarcinoma and Sheila Harrison, you'll find her write-up about her husband and the disease under the heading "Vietnam Veterans" and, below that in larger type, "Parasite Warning."
The warning is this: "Have your bile ducts checked before any symptoms occur."
People everywhere have read the page. Many have contacted Sheila, some with stories similar to hers.
She offers words of comfort and advice, sometimes helping people maneuver through the VA claims process.
"A lot of people don't know anything about it until somebody's diagnosed with it," she said of the disease. She and Pete were like that, once.
She said doctors "are not looking for it in our guys, especially 30 or 40 years after they got out of Vietnam."
When he got out, Pete, who was a sergeant in the Big Red One, counseled veterans at the Labor Department's office in Corning. He would have been proud of his widow and the work she's doing today.
"My husband spent his whole working life working for veterans. He said, 'This isn't right; we've got to let veterans know about this,'" Sheila said.
"He thought it was really important to get the word out, which is why I'm doing what I'm doing."