When Carol Stevenson remembers her favorite uncle, Don Malon, 2 images immediately come to mind: how he looked in his U.S. Navy uniform as a young man, and how he held an oxygen mask to his face during a family gathering 40 years later.
For a long time, Malon and his family failed to see a connection between those 2 images. But as Stevenson has learned more about mesothelioma — 1 of the diseases her uncle faced in his final years — she’s come to believe they’re more closely linked than anyone realized.
“Because he’d been a smoker all his life, we just assumed it was COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease] or maybe the early stages of lung cancer, and not a disease that may have started decades before,” she says.
As his symptoms began to worsen, Malon didn’t visit a Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital or get more extensive testing done. (Stevenson adds that Malon’s home in rural South Dakota made it less convenient to seek medical care.) By the time he received a diagnosis of mesothelioma, it was too late for treatment.
“It was so sad,” Stevenson laments. “It felt like he’d given so much to our family and to his country, and in the end, the resources that should have been there for him were lacking. It felt like he’d been forgotten.”
Malon passed away in 2000, 1 of countless veterans who have faced mesothelioma after their service. According to the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation (MARF), the disease disproportionately affects veterans. In fact, it’s estimated that up to 1/3 of all mesothelioma patients have served in the military.
A Deadly Disease
Mesothelioma is an aggressive form of cancer that occurs in the mesothelium, the thin layer of tissue that covers internal organs. There are 3 main types, each named based on its location in the body:
- Pleural mesothelioma: Occurring in the lungs, this cancer affects 75% of mesothelioma patients.
- Peritoneal mesothelioma: Caused by ingesting asbestos fibers into the digestive tract, this cancer is in the lining of the abdomen. About 20% of mesothelioma patients have this type.
- Pericardial mesothelioma: This rare form of cancer (affecting just 1% of mesothelioma patients) affects the lining around the heart.
Exposure to asbestos is the only known cause of mesothelioma. Consequently, those who work in professions where asbestos has been heavily used — e.g., construction, auto repair, firefighting, welding, and insulation manufacturing — are especially at risk for developing the disease.
However, even those who experience secondhand exposure, such as living with someone working in 1 of the above professions, can develop mesothelioma.
The Impact on Veterans
Those who served in the U.S. Navy as late as the Vietnam War era have been especially hard hit by mesothelioma because Navy ships were once heavily loaded with asbestos. The material was used for insulation and fireproofing everywhere from engine room boilers to pipes running through every nook and cranny of the ships.
But even veterans who never stepped aboard a ship can be affected, since asbestos was also used in military barracks, shipyards, and military vehicle repair areas. Also, the bases and buildings for other branches of the armed forces, including the U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Army, were often constructed with products that contained asbestos, including ceiling tiles, flooring, and insulation.
As these products wore down — especially through the kind of wear-and-tear that is common on military bases and ships — they became even more dangerous, releasing tiny, hazardous fibers into the air. Military personnel who ate in mess halls or slept in bunks may have ingested or inhaled these fibers.
Decades later, even after leaving the military, some of these veterans were stricken with the symptoms of mesothelioma, such as shortness of breath, chronic coughing, and abdominal pain.
The U.S. military eventually recognized the dangers of asbestos, leading to the removal of the material beginning in the mid-1970s. However, military personnel serving in other countries like Afghanistan and Iraq may have been exposed due to the continued use of asbestos there. If a building containing asbestos had been damaged or bombed, those dangerous, cancer-causing fibers could have filled the air, putting soldiers at risk.
That’s 1 of the reasons why the VA has environmental health coordinators, who talk to veterans about issues related to exposure of hazardous materials, including asbestos. Veterans who become ill with an asbestos-related disease could be eligible for service-related compensation from the VA.
Disease Progression and Treatment
As Don Malon discovered, it often takes decades for mesothelioma to fully develop, and experts note that symptoms may not be seen for 20 to 50 years after exposure.
Also, as in Malon’s case, physicians may mistake mesothelioma symptoms for those associated with other diseases, such as asthma or COPD. They may not connect events such as prior military service with potential mesothelioma risk. And even if a doctor does suspect that might be a factor, other doctors may have missed the diagnosis previously, wasting precious time that could have been used for treatment.
Another delay might come from the patient himself. “My uncle was 1 of those stubborn old Midwestern men who hated going to the doctor,” Stevenson recalls. “I think that deep down he knew something might be very wrong, but he thought just quitting smoking would probably be enough. Neither he nor his doctor thought to run the right tests until the cancer was very advanced.”
Catching mesothelioma early is crucial. On the MARF website, veteran Mike Clements details his struggles with the disease and how quick diagnosis, surgery, and post-surgery treatment have been helping him stay cancer-free. But he still faces many challenges with trying to heal and get back to some semblance of normalcy.
“Getting diagnosed with mesothelioma is a stunning event,” he writes. “It puts your entire life on hold while you try to understand what is going to happen and what you can do to improve your survival.”
Memories on Memorial Day
Stevenson has many wonderful memories of her Uncle Don, including his quick wit and kindness, and especially his deep love for family. She recalls the pride in his voice when he talked about being in the Navy during World War II and how he never regretted his service.
This Memorial Day, like every 1 since Malon’s death 15 years ago, Stevenson will take some time to honor his memory and sacrifices, and to consider all the other heroes who have been affected by mesothelioma.
“What he faced was terrible, and it’s so tragic to me that other veterans may be dealing with the same issues,” she says. “I’m hoping that the day comes when there can be more recognition of this disease, and we can really help those who need it most.”