Mesothelioma is an aggressive and rare cancer caused by asbestos. More than 100,000 Americans have died from mesothelioma in the past 30 years, including more than 30,000 U.S. veterans. VA benefits are available for veterans diagnosed with mesothelioma, including disability and VA health care.
What Is Mesothelioma?
Mesothelioma is a form of cancer that affects the mesothelium — the thin layer of tissue that covers most internal organs. It is typically caused when asbestos fibers become stuck in the linings of major organs.
Mesothelioma can develop in the linings of the:
- Abdomen (peritoneum)
- Heart (pericardium)
- Lungs (pleura)
- Testicles (tunica vaginalis)
Most mesothelioma cases are not diagnosed until the cancer has spread and mild symptoms have worsened. Fortunately, multiple treatment options are available.
Top Facts About Mesothelioma
- It takes 10-50 years for mesothelioma to develop.
- There are 3,000 cases of mesothelioma diagnosed annually.
- Of those diagnosed, 33% are U.S. veterans.
Common symptoms of mesothelioma, such as coughing or experiencing shortness of breath, often start mild and mimic signs of more common health problems, such as bronchitis, influenza, or pneumonia.
The most common symptoms of mesothelioma include:
- Abdominal, chest, rib, shoulder, and upper back pain
- Fever and night sweats
- Frequent, dry, or painful coughing
- Pleural effusion (fluid buildup in lung lining)
- Shortness of breath
- Unexplained weight loss
If you are experiencing mesothelioma symptoms, tell your doctor if you have been exposed to asbestos. This can help rule out other possible causes of your symptoms.
The only known cause of malignant mesothelioma is asbestos exposure. Asbestos is a mineral used in many products because of its durability and resistance to heat. By the early 1980s, it was clear that people were dying from mesothelioma cancer and other illnesses after breathing in or swallowing asbestos fibers.
How Much Asbestos Exposure Causes Mesothelioma? There is no safe amount of asbestos exposure. Anyone exposed can develop mesothelioma or another asbestos-related illness.
How Mesothelioma Develops
- When asbestos-containing products are handled or damaged, people may breathe in or swallow asbestos fibers.
- Asbestos fibers embed themselves in the linings of major organs and cause irritation.
- After 10-50 years, malignant mesothelioma cancer can develop.
Who Is at Risk of Mesothelioma?
Anyone exposed to asbestos is at risk of developing mesothelioma later in life. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), those at the highest risk of developing mesothelioma regularly worked around asbestos-based products for long periods of time.
Those with a very high risk of mesothelioma include boilermakers, construction workers, electricians, mechanics, plumbers, and shipyard workers. Those who served on U.S. Navy ships are also at a high risk since these vessels relied heavily on asbestos.
Veterans & Mesothelioma Risk
Veterans have a high risk of mesothelioma due to the widespread use of asbestos in the military between the 1930s and early 1980s.
During this time, the U.S. military believed asbestos was safe since manufacturers of asbestos-based products hid these evidence-based facts from the general public. After a diagnosis, veterans with mesothelioma can seek military benefits and financial compensation.
Navy & Asbestos Risks
There have been more mesothelioma cases in U.S. Navy veterans than in any other branch of the U.S. Armed Forces. U.S. Navy ships were packed with asbestos-containing products, and shipyard workers had to install and remove asbestos products regularly.
Asbestos & the Army
The U.S. Army used tons of asbestos to build its bases and barracks. Asbestos-containing products could also be found in many of the vehicles used by the U.S. Army. There are many reported cases of U.S. Army veterans with mesothelioma.
Variations and Types of Mesothelioma
There are four types (and locations) of mesothelioma:
Any type of mesothelioma can be deadly, but some types respond better to life-extending treatments than others.
Learn about mesothelioma types by location below.
- Located in the lining of the lungs
- Makes up 85-90% of all mesothelioma cases
- Develops in the lining of the lungs (pleura)
- Symptoms include shortness of breath and chest pain
- Average life expectancy is 12-21 months
- Located in the lining of the abdomen
- 10-15% of all mesothelioma cases
- Develops in the abdomen lining (peritoneum)
- Symptoms include abdominal pain/swelling and fatigue
- Patients live 28-35 months on average
- Located in the lining of the heart
- Less than 1% of all cases
- Develops in the lining of the heart (pericardium)
- Symptoms include chest pain and fluid buildup
- The average life expectancy is 5-6 months
- Located in the lining of the testes
- Only 250 cases ever reported
- Develops in the lining of the testes (tunica vaginalis)
- Symptoms are pain and swelling of testicle lining
- Patients live 23 months on average
Mesothelioma Cell Types
Cell types are also used to classify a mesothelioma diagnosis.
Mesothelioma cell type refers to the different cells that form the tumor(s).
There are three main mesothelioma cell types:
Patients' cell types significantly affect their health outlook, as some cells grow and spread more rapidly than others.
Stages of Mesothelioma
Pleural mesothelioma is the only type of mesothelioma with an official staging system.
There are four stages of pleural mesothelioma:
Getting a Mesothelioma Diagnosis
If someone has symptoms of mesothelioma and a history of asbestos exposure, seeing a doctor is the first step to getting a diagnosis. Doctors can create the best cancer care plan once a patient has been diagnosed with mesothelioma.
Doctors typically rely on several tests to make a mesothelioma diagnosis.
Mesothelioma Radiology Scans
Radiology and imaging tests scan a patient’s body for possibly cancerous tumors and other signs of mesothelioma.
Examples of imaging scans for mesothelioma include:
- CT (computed tomography)
- MRI (magnetic resonance imaging)
- PET (positron emission tomography)
Although imaging tests are an essential first step in identifying abnormalities, they will not confirm a mesothelioma diagnosis. If doctors think a cancerous tumor may be present after these scans, they will order a biopsy.
A biopsy collects the affected area's fluid and/or tissue samples. The sample is then sent to a lab and analyzed to determine whether cancer cells are present and, if so, which type.
The only way to confirm a diagnosis of mesothelioma is through a biopsy.
Once cancer doctors (oncologists) have received the biopsy results, they can recommend treatments to their patients based on the diagnosis.
As part of a diagnosis, doctors will provide a mesothelioma prognosis. The prognosis is an estimation of the patient’s expected health outlook. Two major parts of a mesothelioma prognosis are life expectancy and survival rate.
Mesothelioma Life Expectancy
Life expectancy is the average amount of time someone is expected to live after diagnosis. Mesothelioma life expectancy varies widely depending on the location and cell type of the cancer. That said, the average lifespan for someone with mesothelioma is 12-21 months.
Survival Rates for Mesothelioma
The mesothelioma survival rate is the percentage of people still alive after a certain time. According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), the five-year mesothelioma survival rate is 10%. This means 10% of patients will still be alive five years after diagnosis.
The prognosis for mesothelioma is often poor, as most patients are diagnosed after their cancer has spread. However, a prognosis is not set in stone. With the right treatments and medical care, some mesothelioma survivors have lived for years or even decades.
One of the best ways patients can improve their prognosis is by working with a mesothelioma doctor. These doctors have dedicated their practice to finding each patient's best treatments.
Multiple doctors treat veterans with mesothelioma through the VA, who have many years of experience and are recognized experts in the field.
Mesothelioma Treatment Options
Treatments for mesothelioma include options to increase lifespan and palliative care to ease symptoms. The type of treatments a doctor will recommend can vary based on the cancer’s stage, the overall health of the patient, and possible side effects.
The goal of mesothelioma surgery is usually to remove all visible tumors. Options for surgical treatment of malignant pleural mesothelioma include an extrapleural pneumonectomy (EPP) and a pleurectomy/decortication (P/D).
The main surgery option for peritoneal mesothelioma is cytoreductive surgery with heated chemotherapy (HIPEC).
Chemotherapy is a widely used cancer treatment involving specialized drugs targeting cancerous cells. Doctors may use chemotherapy alone or combine it with surgery for best results. Chemotherapy can add months or years to a patient’s lifespan.
Radiation therapy is a painless procedure that kills cancer cells using X-rays and other high-energy particles. It isn’t always effective for treating mesothelioma as it often kills healthy tissue and cancer cells.
Mesothelioma clinical trials can provide patients access to new therapies if standard treatment options don’t work. Some treatments, such as immunotherapy, were approved for mainstream use after encouraging results in clinical trials.
Help for Veterans With Mesothelioma
Veterans with mesothelioma can access financial and medical benefits unavailable to the general public. Learn about notable mesothelioma benefits for veterans below.
VA Benefits for Mesothelioma
Honorably discharged veterans who have developed mesothelioma due to asbestos exposure during their time in the military are entitled to VA benefits.
As of January 2023, mesothelioma VA disability compensation provides married veterans with $3,823.89 per month. Veterans may also qualify for additional financial benefits, such as pension plans.
Mesothelioma Treatment at VA Hospitals
The VA health care system has two specialized cancer centers dedicated to treating veterans with mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma treatment at a VA hospital is usually offered for free or at a reduced cost for veterans and their families.
Mesothelioma Legal Compensation
Legal compensation can help offset the costs of medical treatment and other expenses that may stem from this cancer. Mesothelioma legal compensation can be accessed through trust fund claims and lawsuits.
These lawsuits seek compensation from the makers of asbestos-based products. Mesothelioma lawsuits award $1 to $1.4 million in settlements on average. A mesothelioma lawsuit is not filed against the U.S. military and does not affect a veteran’s VA benefits.
Most lawsuits end in mesothelioma settlements, ensuring that money is paid out to the veteran and their loved ones quickly.
Asbestos Trust Funds
Bankrupt manufacturers of asbestos-based products established asbestos trust funds to pay those with mesothelioma. An estimated $30 billion in these special trusts is available for affected veterans and civilians.
Finding Support for Mesothelioma
A mesothelioma diagnosis can feel confusing and isolating, but patients have many options to find support and resources.
Mesothelioma support groups can offer comfort and practical advice to help patients and caregivers know they’re not fighting alone. These groups meet online, in person, and over the phone.
Patients with late-stage mesothelioma may benefit from hospice care. Hospice care aims to preserve the patient's comfort and quality of life as much as possible. Hospice care may also include counseling and bereavement services for family members.
Mesothelioma Veterans Center is also here to help. Contact us today to get the support you need — we're standing by to serve you.
FAQs About Mesothelioma
What is the main cause of mesothelioma?
The only known cause of mesothelioma is asbestos exposure. When someone disturbs asbestos by working with or around it, they could inhale its microscopic fibers.
The human body cannot break down asbestos fibers. Over time, healthy cells in the body are mutated into cancerous ones by these asbestos fibers.
Those who worked around asbestos decades ago have a very high risk of mesothelioma today, as it takes 10-50 years for this cancer to develop after exposure.
Why are veterans at risk of mesothelioma?
Veterans are at risk of mesothelioma because the U.S. military relied on asbestos-containing products from the 1930s to the early 1980s. Any veteran who served in the military during this time could develop mesothelioma today.
The military was one of the biggest consumers of asbestos because it helped keep bases, vehicles, and ships durable and fireproof.
Veterans with the highest risk of mesothelioma include mechanics and shipyard workers, who regularly worked around asbestos-containing products.
What are common symptoms of mesothelioma?
Common symptoms of mesothelioma include coughing, shortness of breath, and pain in the affected area (abdominal cavity, chest, heart, or testicles). Unfortunately, the early symptoms of mesothelioma may be mistaken for non-cancerous diseases like the flu.
Always consult with a doctor if you develop mesothelioma symptoms after asbestos exposure.
Noticing symptoms early on can help you get a diagnosis before the cancer has spread. This may help you live longer as additional treatments may be available during the earlier stages of the disease.
Is mesothelioma always fatal?
Sadly, many people pass away from mesothelioma. However, some mesothelioma patients have lived for years or even decades after a diagnosis.
An early diagnosis and aggressive treatments can go a long way in helping patients live longer, which is why it is critical to connect with top mesothelioma specialists as soon as possible.
Can mesothelioma be cured?
There is currently no cure for mesothelioma. However, treatments can help patients live for extended periods of time.
Some patients can even enter remission because of these treatments. Patients will not suffer from symptoms if their cancer is in remission and the tumors do not spread.
Doctors are currently seeking a cure for mesothelioma and new ways to help patients live longer through clinical trials.
What is the life expectancy for someone with mesothelioma?
The average life expectancy for patients with mesothelioma is 12-21 months. However, some may live longer than this timeframe.
Factors that affect life expectancy include the type of mesothelioma you were diagnosed with, when you were diagnosed, and what treatments you have received.
Some mesothelioma patients have lived for 15 years or more after their diagnosis because of early and aggressive treatments.