Many veterans with mesothelioma have exposures to asbestos during their service that they aren’t even aware of. Asbestos was so widely used by the military, that most veterans who served before the 1980s were exposed to asbestos in some way
Mesothelioma is a form of cancer that affects the protective membrane surrounding the lungs, abdominal cavity, or heart. It is caused by asbestos, a group of naturally occurring minerals used in many construction materials. The majority of mesothelioma cases are caused by exposure to asbestos on the job.
Unfortunately, veterans have a higher risk for developing mesothelioma than the general population. Before knowing the health risks of asbestos, the military used it in many building products for its fireproof and heat-resistant properties. Up to the late-1970s, asbestos was used in the following military buildings and modes of transportation:
- Military housing
- Military building materials
Because asbestos usage was so prevalent in the military, it is now estimated that one-third of all mesothelioma patients are veterans. Asbestos usage was not limited to a single branch of the military. All branches—the Air Force, Army, Navy, Coast Guard and Marines—used asbestos in different products.
By the late-1970s, the research on the long-term health issues relating to asbestos exposure became undeniable. Still, it took decades for the military to remove or replace asbestos from facilities and vehicles. That means veterans that served in the military even after the 1970s are also at risk.
Generally, long-term exposure to asbestos is required to cause mesothelioma. However, there have been cases of one-time exposures that cause mesothelioma. When someone inhales asbestos, the fibers become stuck in the mesothelial tissue, causing damage at the cellular level. This damage can eventually lead to the growth of tumors.
Veterans suffering from mesothelioma have the option of getting treatment through the United States Department of Veterans Affairs. Veterans who qualify for VA Health Care can receive treatment from one of the VA’s leading mesothelioma surgeons, usually at no cost to the veteran.
VA physicians will walk veterans through the various options—surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation—so that the patient has access to all possible types of treatment. The military also provides several financial benefits to veterans suffering from mesothelioma.
The symptoms of mesothelioma are often mild in the early stages of the disease, causing it to go unnoticed in most people. Many don’t experience the harsher symptoms until later stages, after the cancer has spread. Symptoms may begin to appear anywhere from 15 to 45+ years after exposure to asbestos.
Common symptoms of mesothelioma include:
- Pain at the area of the tumor
- Weight loss
- Fluid buildup
- Bowel obstruction
- Shortness of breath
- Problems swallowing food
Shortness of breath and significant pain near the area of the tumor are typically indicative of mesothelioma in its later stages. There are several treatments for mesothelioma, depending on the type of mesothelioma and the specific cell type (Epithelioid, Sarcomatoid or Biphasic). Chemotherapy and radiation are often used, by themselves, or in conjunction with surgery. However, surgery is the only curative treatment, as chemo or radiation alone will only serve to slow the growth of the cancer, not eliminate it.
There are several ways to diagnose mesothelioma. Although patients might have the same type of mesothelioma, they might be diagnosed with a different test. Here are some of the different options that doctors use to diagnose the disease:
- Imaging (X-ray, PET scan, CT scan, or MRI)
- Blood Tests (MESOMARK or SOMAmer panel)
Sometimes mesothelioma is easily detected while other times it might require several different tests. If a primary care doctor does preliminary tests and suspects mesothelioma, they will usually order a biopsy where a sample of the tumor is obtained by a surgeon, and sent to a laboratory for a determination as to whether the tumor is cancerous, and if so, a determination of the cancer type.
Mesothelioma symptoms typically don’t show up for as many as 20 years after asbestos exposure, and may be confused for other diseases. That’s why testing for mesothelioma is extensive.
There are three main treatment options for those suffering from mesothelioma, including:
Surgery is often an option for those in the early stages of the disease and in otherwise good health. Surgery can be done in conjunction with chemotherapy and/or radiation. If the cancer has not yet metastasized, a patient could live for many years post-surgery, depending on the individual prognosis. In some cases, surgery may even be curative. A surgeon will attempt to remove all traces of the tumors.
Chemotherapy can be a very effective option for those in the later stages of mesothelioma. Chemotherapy can shrink mesothelioma tumors, improve quality of life and lengthen survival time, although it often cannot cure the disease. Patients in later stages of the disease who aren’t candidates for surgery are generally recommended chemotherapy.
Radiation therapy can help to shrink tumor cells, and it is often used in conjunction with chemotherapy. Targeting these cells can curb symptoms and improve life expectancy, though it cannot cure the disease. Radiation does come with some toxicity, but it has less side effects than chemotherapy.
Mesothelioma Benefits for Veterans
Veterans suffering from mesothelioma might be eligible to file an asbestos-related VA claim with the United States Department of Veterans Affairs. The benefits available include: VA Disability, Pension, Aid & Attendance, VA Health Care and Survivor benefits for spouses and dependents. The VA recognizes pleural and peritoneal mesothelioma as cancers that are only caused by the inhalation or ingestion of asbestos fibers.
If exposure to asbestos occurred during military service, the VA will grant you a service related disability rating of 100%. Currently, that translates to $2,906 per month, tax free. Veterans with dependents or those in need of Aid & Attendance of another person can receive additional compensation.