A mesothelioma diagnosis is a life-changing event. Due to the U.S. military’s historically widespread use of asbestos — the only known cause of mesothelioma — veterans are at a high risk of this cancer. Veterans recently diagnosed with mesothelioma have many questions, but our team is here to answer them.
Below are six of the most commonly asked questions about mesothelioma.
1. What Is Mesothelioma?
Mesothelioma is an aggressive and deadly cancer that develops in the lining of major organs.
There are four types of mesothelioma:
- Pleural mesothelioma: Affecting the lining of the lungs, this is the most common type and accounts for 80% of all cases
- Peritoneal mesothelioma: Making up 10-15% of all cases, it is the second-most common type and affects the abdominal lining
- Pericardial mesothelioma: This type affects the lining of the heart and is very rare
- Testicular mesothelioma: This type forms in the lining of the testicles and is the rarest of all, with only 250 cases ever reported
No matter what type, mesothelioma is usually fatal. However, those affected can seek treatment to live longer. Veterans often qualify for medical care and financial aid from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Learn more with a free veterans packet.
2. What Causes Mesothelioma Among U.S. Veterans?
The only known cause of mesothelioma is asbestos exposure. People who live or work around asbestos-based products can unknowingly inhale asbestos fibers, which then get stuck inside their bodies.
Since the body can’t break down asbestos fibers, they remain inside for decades. Asbestos fibers irritate healthy cells and eventually cause cancerous mutations.
Since mesothelioma symptoms generally do not appear until 20-50 years after asbestos exposure, veterans who served up until the 1980s may still be at risk today.
This is because the U.S. military didn't take steps to remove asbestos-based products from its bases, vehicles, and ships until the late 1970s and early 1980s, meaning veterans were at risk of exposure.
Veterans can also develop other asbestos-related diseases, such as lung cancer and asbestosis.
3. Why Are U.S. Veterans at a Higher Risk of Mesothelioma?
The U.S. military heavily relied on asbestos-based products between the 1930s and 1980s. Asbestos was found in everything from military bases and buildings to vehicles and ships.
Due to this widespread asbestos use, veterans with mesothelioma account for 33% of all cases in the United States.
Tragically, those serving did not know the risks of exposure as makers of asbestos-based products hid the facts.
While veterans of each branch of the military may have been exposed, U.S. Navy veterans have the highest risk of developing mesothelioma. Hundreds of Navy vessels heavily relied on asbestos-based products to reduce the risks of fires aboard them.
4. Is There a Cure for Mesothelioma Cancer?
Unfortunately, mesothelioma is aggressive and a cure is not possible for most people. This is because mesothelioma is usually diagnosed at an advanced stage.
However, treatments can help patients live longer. Commonly used treatments include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation.
Surgery allows doctors to remove visible tumors, depending on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.
Commonly used surgical treatments for mesothelioma include:
- Extrapleural pneumonectomy (EPP): Removes the lung closest to pleural mesothelioma tumors, the diaphragm, and the linings of the chest and heart
- Pleurectomy with decortication (P/D): Removes the lung lining where pleural mesothelioma tumors have formed, as well as part of the diaphragm and heart lining if needed
- Cytoreductive surgery with HIPEC: Used in cases of peritoneal mesothelioma, this surgery removes cancer tumors and is followed by hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy (HIPEC) to kill microscopic cancer cells
Other minor mesothelioma surgeries can be used to relieve a patient’s symptoms.
Chemotherapy uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells. These chemotherapy drugs are either taken orally or injected into veins or muscles.
Commonly used mesothelioma chemotherapy drugs include:
- Pemetrexed (Alimta®)
- Doxorubicin (Adriamycin®)
- Gemcitabine (Gemzar®)
Several forms of chemotherapy are often combined to treat patients. One of the most common combinations is pemetrexed and cisplatin.
Radiation therapy uses high-energy X-rays to prevent cancer cells from growing or to kill them entirely. Radiation can also be used to improve quality of life by relieving mesothelioma symptoms.
Immunotherapy is considered a biologic therapy because it uses the patient’s own immune system to restore, direct, or boost the body’s natural defenses against mesothelioma.
The following immunotherapy drugs can treat mesothelioma:
- Ipilimumab (Yervoy®)
- Nivolumab (Opdivo®)
- Pembrolizumab (Keytruda®)
Researchers are investigating other treatments through clinical trials — these trials can help doctors find more effective treatments or even a cure. The immunotherapy drugs Opdivo and Yervoy were approved for use as mesothelioma treatments after they showed promise in clinical trials.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the treatment mesothelioma patients will undergo depends on their overall health and certain aspects of their cancer, such as stage and location.
5. What Is the Life Expectancy of a Person With Mesothelioma?
The average life expectancy for a person with mesothelioma is 12-21 months. However, this can vary depending upon a number of factors.
Factors that affect mesothelioma life expectancy include:
- Stage: This describes how far the cancer has spread at the time of diagnosis. Patients diagnosed in the later stages have a lower life expectancy, as the cancer is more widespread.
- Cell type: Mesothelioma tumors are made up of sarcomatoid and epithelioid cells. Some patients have both types of cells in their tumors in cases of biphasic mesothelioma. Sarcomatoid cells don't respond as well to treatment — patients with these cells often have a lower lifespan. Biphasic mesothelioma patients have a worse lifespan if more sarcomatoid cells are present.
- Cancer subtype: Patients with peritoneal mesothelioma have the best life expectancy since treatments are more effective.
Mesothelioma patients are encouraged to speak with their doctor to learn how they can live longer. Thanks to existing treatments and clinical trials, many patients have been able to live longer than initially expected.
6. How Can Veterans With Mesothelioma Get Help?
There are several ways that veterans with mesothelioma can get medical and financial help. For example, the VA offers both medical and financial benefits to veterans with mesothelioma.
- VA financial benefits can pay over $3,000 per month in many cases
- VA medical benefits include free or low-cost treatment from mesothelioma specialists
- Veterans can often see civilian doctors if they wish to
Outside of the VA, veterans can also file legal claims. Mesothelioma legal claims may allow veterans to take action against the makers of asbestos-based products.
- Legal claims award $1 million on average
- Veterans may start to receive money in as little as 90 days
- No legal action is taken against the military
Finally, veterans can also pursue compensation through asbestos trust funds. Asbestos trust funds were created by the makers of asbestos-based products after they filed for bankruptcy.
- Over $30 billion is available in trust funds today
- Veterans may get payments from dozens of trusts
Still Have Mesothelioma Questions? Contact Our Team Today
Life after a mesothelioma diagnosis can be confusing and stressful. It is perfectly normal to have many questions and concerns.
The Mesothelioma Veterans Center can answer mesothelioma questions and help you get the care you need.
With our team, you can:
- Connect with top mesothelioma doctors
- File for VA benefits with help from fellow veterans
- Find support after a mesothelioma diagnosis
- Learn about medical & legal resources to protect your family's future