Mesothelioma & Veterans

Mesothelioma and Navy Veterans

Of all veterans, those who served in the Maritime services - the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard, Marines or Merchant Marine - are at the highest risk for developing and asbestos-related illness such as mesothelioma, a rare cancer caused almost exclusively by asbestos exposure.

About Asbestos Diseases

Asbestos exposure kills in a number of different ways, not all of them malignant (cancer-related). Asbestosis is the most common asbestos-related illness. This occurs when antibodies detect asbestos fibers lodged inside the lungs and mistakes them for an organic pathogen. However, asbestos fibers are not organic; they are a silicate mineral, chemically identical to rock.

Depending on the type of asbestos, they either cause small abrasions on the inner surfaces of the lungs, or antibodies literally impale themselves on the need-like structures, releasing acids onto lung tissue. In either case, the result is the same: scar tissue starts to build up inside the alveoli, or air sacs of the lung, and the lungs themselves begin to calcify, losing air capacity.

Asbestos cancers are relatively rare. Lung cancer and mesothelioma - a cancer which most commonly affects the inner lining of the lungs - can both result from asbestos exposure. Tobacco use seems to exacerbate the situation as studies have shown that cigarette smokers face a much greater chance of contracting asbestos cancer than non-smokers.

Recent research indicates that the presence of asbestos fibers inside the lungs create chromic inflammation, which in turn releases certain chemicals implicated in the formation of cancer cells. Amphiboles, a form of asbestos fibers which are relatively stiff and resemble microscopic needles, actually bore through lung tissues from the inside out. During their journey, they appear to interact with healthy cells on a molecular level, causing them to mutate and turn malignant. The exact mechanism by which this happens is not yet fully understood, however.

The most serious danger of mesothelioma is its long latency period. Symptoms of mesothelioma typically do not arise until the cancer has reached an advanced stage, where curative treatments are usually ineffective. Mesothelioma usually attacks the pleural lining of the lungs, but can also affect the pericardial lining as well as the peritoneum (the mesothelial lining of the heart and digestive tract, respectively).

Asbestos Use in Maritime Services

The Navy used asbestos extensively in its combat and support vessels over a 60-year period between the 1920s and early 1980s. Anyone who served during World War II through the Korean War is at highest risk for asbestos disease. The exposure was highest for those who worked below decks in the engine and boiler rooms, where asbestos lagging and insulation was used extensively. Other areas of the ship that were likely to contain high levels of asbestos included any rooms where ordnance and fuel tanks were stored. Oilers, or fuel ships, were literally floating ordnance on their own. Carrying hundreds of thousands of fuel oil for the use of combat vessels, these ships contained the highest levels of asbestos.

High levels of exposure were likely to occur during combat or as the asbestos insulation aged and became brittle. "Shock and age" caused this insulation to crumble into dust and release millions of fibers into the air. In this state, asbestos is said to be friable. In ships that were refitted and overhauled in the 1980s or later, this asbestos may be encapsulated, or sealed up. Before this time however, it posed a serious health issue.

Importance of Early Diagnosis

Recent advances in medical research have made it possible to detect the signs of mesothelioma much sooner than was possible even a few years ago. The good news is that patients with this disease are learning to manage it and even stop it from progressing further. The key is early diagnosis since, like most forms of cancer, mesothelioma is most treatable in its early stages.

Veterans have access to quality health care through the Veteran's Administration and should take advantage of these services by getting frequent checkups. Veterans should also ask a primary care physician about MESOMARK, a blood test recently approved by the FDA that has shown great promise in detecting the protein "markers" of mesothelioma before symptoms become apparent.

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