Between 1940 and 1970, thousands of men in the United States armed forces were exposed to asbestos during the construction of navy ships and assembly of other military equipment. Decades later, these men and workers employed in U.S. shipyards during World War II are now at great risk of developing mesothelioma, an asbestos cancer.
Many naval workers toiled in the ships’ boiler rooms and engine rooms – small, poorly ventilated areas – where asbestos, a chemical-resistant mineral used mostly for fireproofing and insulation, floated freely. Its fibers easily break into small particles and can be inhaled or attach themselves to clothing.
Over the past 30 years, many veterans, particularly those who were in the Navy, have developed or died from mesothelioma. As recently as 2003, former military and naval shipyard workers accounted for 26 percent of all malignant mesothelioma cases in the U.S.
While there are other asbestos-related lung ailments – asbestosis and lung cancer – mesothelioma is the most severe result of inhaling asbestos fibers. Mesothelioma is a rare, incurable, highly fatal form of cancer that is nearly 100 percent caused from asbestos exposure. Only 3,000 new cases are diagnosed each year. It is also a difficult cancer to diagnose because its symptoms are similar to those of pneumonia or a cold. Unfortunately, in most instances, by the time mesothelioma is diagnosed, it is too late.
Mesothelioma usually takes 15-40 years to surface. The lengthy latency period is a major reason that many World War II veterans are now showing the disease’s symptoms. Mesothelioma affects the mesothelium lining surrounding the lungs, heart, or abdomen. There are three major types of mesothelioma: Pleural mesothelioma affects the lungs and accounts for 80 to 90 percent of mesothelioma cases; peritoneal mesothelioma is less common and attacks the abdomen; and pericardial mesothelioma affects the lining of the heart and is extremely rare.
Veterans who develop mesothelioma may have rights to Veterans Affairs (VA) health and disability benefits, but they must first apply for enrollment into the program at their regional VA office. There is no guarantee, however, that they will be approved.
The VA does not currently recognize mesothelioma as a “service-connected” medical condition. A “service-connected” condition is defined as an illness or disease that is linked to one’s military service. The VA does offer a number of Special Benefits programs for other service-connected disorders, such as the Agent Orange Treatment and Registry Examination and Gulf War Illness, but nothing regarding asbestos.
If the VA approves the application of a veteran with mesothelioma, he or she is automatically awarded Disability Compensation. The amounts of health coverage and disability compensation are based on various criteria, and the amounts are determined after approval. If approved, the veteran has hundreds of medical facilities across the nation from which to select treatment.
Once a veteran is approved, he or she may have several mesothelioma treatment options from which to choose. Since mesothelioma is not curative, however, these methods are considered palliative and only provide the patient with symptom relief.
Traditional mesothelioma treatments include surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy – the same treatments associated with other cancers. They are often used in conjunction with one another – known as trimodality therapy – to provide a more effective treatment.
The first step in a treatment plan largely depends on how advanced the disease is. Surgery usually comes first if the cancer is staged early and has not spread. Surgery is designed to remove the mesothelioma tumor or tumors from the inside the chest. Chemotherapy then helps limit the growth of portions of the tumor unable to be removed by surgery. If chemotherapy is performed prior to surgery, it attempts to shrink the tumors and prevent them from growing. (Surgery after chemotherapy involves the removal of the remainder of the tumors.) The combination of Alimta and Cisplatin chemotherapeutic drugs has proven to be successful against mesothelioma. Radiotherapy, the last step, eliminates any remaining cancer cells.
Thus far, trimodality therapy has proven to be the most effective method of treatment for mesothelioma. It has prolonged patients’ survival times, in some cases, by as much as five years.
‘VA Benefits and Mesothelioma’ Resources:
1. Veterans Resources, VeteransResources.org, “Mesothelioma and Veterans”, http://www.veteransresources.org/news-articles/mesothelioma-and-veterans-070717.html,
2. TransWorldNews, Inc., Press Release, “Mesothelioma Veterans Alert”, http://www.transworldnews.com/NewsStory.aspx?storyid=15396
3. Department of Veterans Affairs, VA.org, “Section C. Service Connection for Disabilities Resulting From Exposure to Environmental Hazards”
4. Virginia Commonwealth University, WorkWORLD, “Veterans Affairs (VA) Benefits – Disability Compensation”, http://www.workworld.org/wwwebhelp/veterans_affairs_va_benefits_disability_compensation.htm
5. Cancer Facts Online, LungCancerFacts.org, “Homepage”, http://www.lungcancerfacts.org/
6. International Mesothelioma Program, Division Of Thoracic Surgery, Brigham And Women’s Hospital, “Homepage”, http://www.impmeso.org/