Every 26th of September, Mesothelioma Awareness Day (MAD) is recognized as a day to spread information about this rare disease and educate people about the dangers of its only known cause, asbestos exposure. Of the nearly 3,000 Americans diagnosed with mesothelioma each year, 30 percent of this total are veterans. It is important that we acknowledge the veteran population affected by this disease and continue efforts towards finding a cure.
What is Mesothelioma?
Mesothelioma is a form of cancer that primarily affects the lining of the lungs, but can also be present in the lining of the abdomen and heart. Due to its prolonged latency period, symptoms of this disease typically do not arise for nearly 10 to 50 years. When symptoms do begin to appear, oftentimes, the disease has already progressed to an advanced stage, making treatment options extremely limited.
Historically, the cause of mesothelioma cancer has been linked to asbestos exposure. Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that was often used in materials prone to heat and friction. When asbestos is disturbed, airborne fibers have the ability to be inhaled or ingested, gaining access to our internal organs. These fibers lay dormant within our bodies where they cause inflammation and scarring, leading to the development of tumors.
For those diagnosed with mesothelioma, the prognosis is most often very poor. Patients who are diagnosed at an earlier stage are given between 16 to 21 months to live post-diagnosis, which is a limited amount of time to pursue treatment.
How Are Veterans Affected?
Service men and women of our military are susceptible to asbestos exposure as a result of mass historic use of asbestos-products. While there has been a decline in asbestos usage and stricter regulations, asbestos may still be present on military bases, naval ships, and aircraft equipment. Because of this, there is a steady diagnosis rate amongst veterans. This will remain unchanged until asbestos is completely banned in the United States or the government issues a mandate for all asbestos to be removed from military locations.
Those who have served our country between 1920 to 1980 are at the highest risk of developing an asbestos-related disease, as this was the height of asbestos usage. Locations such as the sleeping barracks of ships used in the Navy were tight and limited, allowing for a high concentration of fibers to be present if asbestos was disturbed. Other branches that are affected by asbestos include the Air Force, Army, Coast Guard and Marines through asbestos materials used in things such as aircraft braking systems, military vehicles, and fireproofing for ships.
An additional risk factor that should be kept in mind is the use of asbestos in other countries. Members of our military can also be exposed while on deployment and stationed in areas that are war-torn, and as a result, have created large amounts of debris and rubble.
Across borders, many older buildings and homes on United States bases could be harboring asbestos-containing materials, such as roofing and flooring tiles. While it is difficult to avoid exposure because asbestos fibers are invisible to the naked eye, with the right protective equipment and knowledge, we can work to keep our military safe from these asbestos-related diseases.
Symptoms & Detection
Veterans that believe they may have been exposed to asbestos should receive checkups frequently and monitor their health closely. Symptoms of mesothelioma often mimic those of other less serious illnesses and should be evaluated no matter how seemingly minor. Some of the symptoms are as follows:
- Abdominal swelling
- Breathing difficulties
- Muscle Weakness
- Chest pain
Testing such as X-rays and CT scans can provide insight into underlying symptoms and help identify any abnormalities. Blood tests should also be performed regularly to see if there is an overabundance of mesothelin present in the blood, which may hint at malignancy. It is vital to monitor symptoms immediately. This will allow for the best chance of survival and successful treatment if the disease is caught early.
What to do if You’re Diagnosed
If you are diagnosed with mesothelioma, the next step is to understand your treatment options. It is important to research and connect with an oncologist that specializes in mesothelioma cancer, as they will be able to provide you with the latest and most effective treatments specific to your diagnosis. Cancer treatment costs can oftentimes be burdensome to families, and when diagnosed with mesothelioma, there is typically a party that is liable for the disease that you have developed. To manage these costs better, it is your right to seek legal action, as there are victim compensation funds set in place to ensure those who are affected by asbestos exposure receive the funding they deserve for their treatment.
How You Can Help
Mesothelioma is one of the lesser known forms of cancer, receiving minimal coverage in mainstream oncology. With the support of others and by spreading awareness, this cancer will not only be diagnosed less, but a cure could be on the horizon. Through donating to the Purple Heart Foundation, the MOPH National Service Officer program will continue to help veterans fight for their VA benefits and receive much needed care for injuries and illnesses, such as mesothelioma, that stem from service to our country.