Michael Lyle Brown, married Valencia father of two and happy, active retired US Marine, retired LAPD officer, was the type of guy to move on and not spend a lot of time looking back.
But, something “insidious” happened three years ago when he suddenly became ill. That illness forced him to look back more than a half century ago for the cause of his illness.
When he just 19, serving his country as a Marine fighting in Vietnam’s jungles and rivers, a microscopic parasite, called a river fluke, entered his body – likely through uncooked or under cooked river fish.
The river fluke lay hidden and silent inside his body for 46 years.
The first symptoms of Mike’s illness appeared in 2013 when he became jaundiced.
“They did different types of tests and they couldn’t find anything,” said Mike’s wife, Roxanne.
Doctors referred him to specialists at the City of Hope National Medical Center where they found an insidious type of cancer called cholangiocarcinoma.
“It was a bile duct cancer,” Roxanne said. “More than likely it was caused by a parasite he picked up in Vietnam.”
Mike discovered he was among hundreds of veterans who have been diagnosed with the rare bile duct cancer which may be linked to their time in the service and an unexpected source: parasites in raw or poorly cooked river fish.
The worms infect an estimated 25 million people, mostly in Asia, but are less known in America. They can easily be wiped out with a few pills early on. Left untreated, a cancer known as cholangiocarcinoma can develop, often killing patients just a few months after symptoms appear, according to a report published by The Associated Press in November.
The U.S. government acknowledges that liver parasite flukes, endemic in the steamy jungles of Vietnam, are likely killing some former soldiers, AP reported in November.
Mike was born on New Year’s Day in 1948 in Bell, CA. He and his family moved to San Fernando Valley where he graduated from Canoga Park High School in 1965.
After a year of college, he decided to join the US Marine Corp where he served from 1966 to 1969. He was sent to Vietnam where he, somehow, picked up the parasite that would
lay dormant inside him for almost a half century – like a ticking time bomb.
Mike did a 13-month tour in Da Nang as a radio telephone operator. After he was discharged, he became a sworn officer of the Los Angeles Police Department.
Roxanne described her husband as healthy and active, never showing any sign that something was wrong.
He loved the outdoors, she said, hiking, camping, fishing, boating and running.
They married in 1974, had two children, and after 30 years with the LAPD, he retired in 1999. Not content to remain idle, he was hired by the state as an investigator with the Horse Racing Board.
He retired a second time in 2011, and – still not content to remain idle – signed up to work part-time as a probation monitor.
After all that time, having pursued several careers from the military to law enforcement, Mike showed no signs of a parasite silently wounding his body.
The parasites typically go undetected, sometimes living for more than 25 years without making their hosts sick, according to AP. The body reacts by trying to wall off the organisms. This causes inflammation and scarring and, over time, can lead to cancer. The first symptoms are often jaundice, itchy skin and rapid weight loss. By the time these symptoms occur, the disease is usually advanced.
That’s what happened to Mike when, in 2013, he became jaundiced.
“It was devastating,” Roxanne said. “That someone who is healthy, who keeps in shape, and then just one day it just happens. And, by then it’s untreatable.”
Once doctors found the cancer, Mike underwent major surgery. “They called it a Whipple surgery,” his wife said. “They removed small intestines, part of his pancreas and gall bladder.”
But the cancer was aggressive.
“Eventually, even with chemo (chemotherapy) and radiation, it was spreading,” she said. But, Mike kept fighting.
He filed a claim with the Veterans Administration for his illness once doctors learned what it was.
“But the VA doesn’t recognize this parasite as the primary cause,” she said.
Undeterred, Mike and his wife battled on and appealed the VA’s decision.
Mike finally won his appeal and received notification in the mail, Roxanne said. A week later, he died.
“Even though Mike won the appeal, it was a struggle,” she said. “In the end, he was excited that it had been acknowledged. He was happy. He felt it was worth it for him.”
Mike died on Oct. 15, 2016.
“His true love and passion was his family,” Roxanne wrote about her husband.
“Mike was a consummate fighter,” she wrote. “He courageously battled his disease with strength, dignity, hope and his always present humor.
“He continued living life to the fullest with his family by his side. Mike leaves a legacy of memories, love and inspiration and he will be in our hearts.”
on Twitter @jamesarthurholt