The Cooney and Conway Veterans Guide to Asbestos Exposure, Mesothelioma, and Lung Cancer aims to be a comprehensive reference with information and resources about why veterans and members of the U.S. military have been and remain at risk for asbestos and how to get the help you and your family need. Asbestos is a dangerous material that has been proven as a contributing factor to mesothelioma and lung cancer. This guide covers major uses of asbestos in the military, what to do if you or your family may have been exposed, symptoms, treatment, and where to turn for resources or to donate to support Veterans with asbestos exposure or for research efforts to find a cure for asbestos-related Mesothelioma or lung cancer. We hope you will find the information, support, and comfort you are looking for in our Veterans Guide:

1. Military risk for asbestos exposure, Mesothelioma, and lung cancer.
2. Mesothelioma and Lung Cancer Symptoms
3. Mesothelioma and Lung Cancer Treatment for Veterans
4. What to Do if You Think You or Your Military Family Has Been Exposed to Asbestos
5. How to Help Veterans with Asbestos Exposure, Mesothelioma, and Lung Cancer
6. Resources and Support for Asbestos Exposure, Mesothelioma, and Lung Cancer

1. Military risk for asbestos exposure, Mesothelioma, and lung cancer

Until the 1970’s, asbestos was used in hundreds of products utilized by the military.  Asbestos was valued because it keeps fire and heat under control. Therefore, it was found in everything from tanks to ships to the basic construction materials used all over military bases. (Trauma and Resiliency Resources)

Although the dangers of asbestos exposure are now well known, for a long time many people were regularly exposed to it.  During much of the twentieth century, members of the military unknowingly operated in conditions that were dangerous to their health because of the level of asbestos exposure.

The United States Department of Veterans Affairs says that veterans who served in certain occupations may have been exposed to asbestos during their service. Those occupations include demolition of old buildings, carpentry and construction, manufacturing and installation of products like flooring and roofing, mining, milling, shipyard work and insulation work.  Additionally, although the military began phasing asbestos out of their own construction several decades ago, military members who served in other countries like Iraq and other parts of the Middle East may have been exposed to the asbestos used there, especially if they were nearby when buildings were damaged. (US Department of Veterans Affairs)

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The Navy in particular relied strongly on asbestos in its materials. During the 1930s, asbestos was used by the Navy in all of its ships’ insulation, as well as in paint and lagging (insulation surrounding heat components). ( Naval yards, filled with these building materials, were packed with dangerous asbestos fibers being released from them. Especially at Brooklyn Navy Yard, Norfolk Navy Yard, Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, and Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company Yard, military members would have been inhaling the toxin on a daily basis. (Trauma and Resiliency Resources)

By the time the army began to decrease asbestos usage, thousands of veterans had been exposed to the toxin and many had begun to develop asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma and lung cancer.  (Trauma and Resiliency Resources)

The result of all of this toxic exposure is clear: veterans suffer disproportionately from mesothelioma. The Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation estimates that veterans constitute a third of total people who have been diagnosed with mesothelioma. (Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation)

Another result of asbestos exposure, as well as exposure to other harmful chemicals like battlefield combustibles and dioxins, is a higher rate of lung cancer amongst veterans. And the risk to military members continues. According to the Lung Cancer Alliance, “Active duty military and veterans are at increased risk from lung cancer.” (Lung Cancer Alliance)

Veterans who believe they are suffering from one of these conditions or who are otherwise concerned with related health problems should speak to their health care providers and/or local Veterans Affairs Environmental Health Coordinator. (US Department of Veterans Affairs)


2. Mesothelioma and Lung Cancer Symptoms

Asbestos exposure has been shown to lead to a number of fatal diseases including mesothelioma and lung cancer. Certain groups of people are more at risk of being exposed to asbestos, like active members of the military and veterans. Smokers exposed to asbestos are also at
a higher risk of developing lung cancer than non-smokers working in the same conditions. (National Cancer Institute)

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In addition to this first degree risk of exposure, secondary exposure is also possible. Even those who do not work directly with asbestos but work in spaces where others handled asbestos before are at risk of exposure to asbestos and may exhibit symptoms of mesothelioma, lung cancer and other asbestos-related diseases. For example, if an electrician worked in a shipyard, he could be exposed to asbestos that were used in the ships’ building materials. (CDC)

The time between exposure and the development of mesothelioma or lung cancer varies, but it is usually a long time. Most cases occur fifteen or more years subsequent to the original exposure. Asbestos-related diseases are more likely to develop among people who were exposed to high concentrations of asbestos and/or for long periods of time. (CDC)

Those who may be at risk of exposure should be aware of the symptoms of common asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma and lung cancer.

Mesothelioma symptoms vary from patient to patient, depending on where in the body the cancer occurs.  Pleural mesothelioma affects the tissue around the lungs. Its symptoms include painful coughing, shortness of breath, unexplained weight loss, unusual lumps of tissue beneath the skin on your chest, and chest pain beneath the rib cage.  Peritoneal mesothelioma occurs in the abdominal tissue. It may cause symptoms including unexplained weight loss, abdominal pain and swelling, and lumps of tissue in the abdomen.

Other types of mesothelioma are much less common and therefore their symptoms are more difficult to identify. Pericardial mesothelioma occurs in the tissue surrounding the heart and causes difficulty breathing and chest pain. (Mayo Clinic)

Lung cancer typically only shows symptoms when the disease is advanced, largely going unnoticed in its early stages. The following signs and symptoms should be taken seriously, especially for those who have been exposed to asbestos. Those symptoms include: wheezing, chest pain, hoarseness, unexplained weight loss, shortness of breath, coughing up even small amounts of blood, developing a new cough or a change in a chronic cough, bone pain, and headaches. (Mayo Clinic)

If you or someone you know is experiencing any of these symptoms, be sure to see a doctor right away.  Millions of Americans have been exposed to asbestos since the early 1940s. Therefore, anyone who notices these symptoms should take them seriously.


3. Mesothelioma and Lung Cancer Treatment for Veterans

Because the United States military relied on asbestos heavily until the 1970’s, veterans worked in conditions that were dangerous to their health for decades. Asbestos was used in the materials that many military bases were built out of, as well as ships and military vehicles like tanks on the grounds. This extensive exposure has led to a disproportionate amount of veterans suffering from mesothelioma, lung cancer, and other asbestos-related diseases.

Lung cancer has been a leading cause of death in the military veteran community. “Lung cancer is an urgent priority among veterans. Not only is the incidence higher, but the survival is lower than in civilian populations,” asserted Rear Admiral Philip Coady, former Chairman of the Board of Lung Cancer Alliance and former commander of the USS Conolly (DD 979), USS Antietam (CG 54) and Kitty Hawk Battle Group. (Lung Cancer Alliance)

Smoking has been shown to greatly increase the lethality of mesothelioma, lung cancer and other asbestos-related diseases. Doctors strongly advise that Veterans exposed to asbestos or diagnosed with asbestos-related mesothelioma or lung cancer quit smoking immediately, known by some as the “number one rule.” Avoiding second hand smoke is also important. (United States Department of Veterans Affairs)

Diagnosis and Treatment Methods

To diagnose mesothelioma, doctors may use several of the following methods. They will likely administer a bodily exam to look for signs of the disease like lumps, and ask questions about the patient’s habits, possible exposure to asbestos, and health history. Chest x-rays are also common, as they provide the doctor with a view of the organs and bones inside the chest. A “CBC” or “complete blood count” will look at red and white blood cells, platelets, and blood oxygen level. A biopsy may be performed, which involves removing cells from the lung’s lining and examining them under the microscope to check for the cancer. (National Cancer Institute (NCI))

An aggressive cancer, mesothelioma can still be managed with treatment, but a cure has not yet been developed or found. Mesothelioma treatment regimens usually involve chemotherapy, radiation therapy and/or surgery, and have been shown to be effective in helping patients experience a less painful and less uncomfortable illness. (Mayo Clinic) The search for a cure continues. The University of Leicester in the UK is currently conducting clinical trials on two possible new drug treatments. (Science Daily) The National Cancer Institute (NCI) also provides detailed information about types of treatment prescribed and performed for various forms of asbestos-caused mesothelioma and lung cancer.

The kind of treatment and its duration for lung cancer depends on the stage and kind of cancer and can include surgery, chemotherapy and/or radiation. A number of hospitals offer the latest treatment options. The Mayo Clinic, for example, has specialists in thoracic diseases, radiation oncology, oncology, thoracic surgery and other cancer-related specialties. (Mayo Clinic)

In addition to the regular resources available to patients of mesothelioma and lung cancer, being a veteran may provide access to additional opportunities for treatment. A few Veterans Affairs hospitals have become leaders in asbestos cancer care. The VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System and the Boston VA Healthcare System both have world-renowned mesothelioma experts on staff, and other VA hospitals have been awarded with national honors for their cancer expertise. (University of California San Diego Veterans Association)


4. What to Do if You Think You or Your
Military Family has been Exposed to Asbestos

Cooney and Conway Veterans Guide - What to Do if You Suspect Asbestos Exposure
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Though asbestos is now broadly recognized as a dangerous material, for much of the twentieth century, its toxicity was unknown and it was valued for its ability to maintain fires and heat. Therefore, it quickly became a commonly used building material, especially within the military. Until the 1970’s, asbestos was commonly used in military products ranging from tanks to basic construction materials to the hulls and lining of ships. For decades, military members worked in conditions enduring long-term asbestos exposure without the knowledge that it was dangerous. (Trauma and Resiliency Resources) This has led to high number of veterans suffering from asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma and lung cancer. (Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation)

Asbestos-related diseases like lung cancer and mesothelioma can take fifteen years or more to develop, but if you or a member of your family believes he/she has been exposed to asbestos, immediate action should be taken.

Seek Medical Attention

Veterans who are concerned that they may have been exposed to asbestos should begin by contacting their primary health providers and setting up an appointment to discuss concerns. Your primary care provider will be able to help arrange a consultation to have an in-person or over the phone exposure assessment by a specialist in environmental medicine.

Veterans may also contact the War Related Illness and Injury Study Center (WRIISC) through the US Department of Veterans Affairs, that can answer questions and address any concerns. (US Department of Veterans Affairs)

Heightened Risk for Smokers

If you believe you were exposed to asbestos and you are a smoker, it is important to quit smoking immediately. The combination of asbestos exposure with cigarette smoke is very dangerous and greatly increases the chances of getting lung cancer. Make sure you also stay up-to-date with your regular vaccinations like flu shots. (US Department of Veterans Affairs)

Secondary Exposure

Because secondary exposure is also possible with asbestos, even those who did not directly work with asbestos themselves but operated in spaces where others handled asbestos are at risk of exposure. Anyone who worked regularly with asbestos and then returned home to their family should consult with their doctors about their family members’ risk as well. (CDC)

Legal Considerations

If you are diagnosed with mesothelioma, lung cancer or another asbestos-related disease, and believe that you were exposed during your military service or at your workplace, you may have a legal claim. You should consult with an attorney as soon as possible to find out if your claim is actionable. Legal claims are subject to statutes of limitation, meaning that at a certain point, the claims will expire if not acted upon by the victim. Because the statute of limitations will begin to run as soon as you are diagnosed, be sure to consult with an attorney right away.

Sufferers of mesothelioma and lung cancer can also look for emotional support through support groups, available both online and in-person. In addition to groups specific to mesothelioma and lung cancer, there are also broader categories of groups available that can offer just as much assistance like in-home care through the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO). Consider veterans groups and/or senior citizens groups as well. Support groups are available both in-person and online. Check with your local Veterans Affairs office and/or join online support groups, like the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Survivors Network.

5. How to Help Veterans with Asbestos Exposure, Mesothelioma, or Lung Cancer

Lung cancer and mesothelioma are diseases caused by exposure to asbestos. Because the military relied on asbestos for a wide range of products, its members were regularly exposed to it. Asbestos, a building material valued for its ability to control fire and heat, was once found in everything. It was used in building tanks, ships, and many of the buildings on military bases. Until the 1970’s, military members unknowingly worked in conditions that were damaging to their health. (Trauma and Resiliency Resources)

The United States Department of Veterans Affairs has addressed the problem, saying that veterans who served in certain jobs may have been exposed during their service, including:

  • carpentry and construction
  • building demolition
  • milling
  • mining
  • shipyard work
  • insulation work
  • roofing
  • flooring

Members of the military that have served in the Middle East may have also been exposed, especially those in the vicinity of building demolitions. (US Department of Veterans Affairs) The army eventually phased out its use of asbestos, but the damage had already been done for thousands of veterans that were exposed. Many developed asbestos-related diseases like lung cancer and mesothelioma. (Trauma and Resiliency Resources)

Active duty military and veterans are at increased risk from lung cancer.” (Lung Cancer Alliance)

When a member of a family gets sick, though, it is not just that one person that suffers. Family members and friends of those suffering from lung cancer and mesothelioma are also affected. Many look for ways to help their sick mother, father, brother or sister, but do not know how. There are a number of ways to offer them help, though.

Education Leads to Care

Start by familiarizing yourself with the resources available to help veterans suffering from lung cancer or mesothelioma. Veterans could be eligible to receive Veterans Affairs disability compensation benefits and health care benefits if they suffer from health problems caused by exposure to asbestos while they were in the military. The family members of veterans, their dependents and survivors, also could potentially be eligible for benefits. Family members should consult the Veterans Affairs website for more information. (US Department of Veterans Affairs)

Family members can also join support groups and help their loved one(s) suffering from lung cancer and mesothelioma find support groups as well. Check with the local Veterans Affairs (VA) office to see if there are any available in your area. You can find local and online support groups through Facebook and other social media communities.

Additional Resources

  • The American Cancer Society hosts an online support group for cancer patients, as well as their family members and friends -- the Cancer Survivors Network.
  • In addition, Daily Strength offers an online discussion forum for a Mesothelioma Support Group.

6. Resources and Support for Veterans with Asbestos Exposure, Mesothelioma, and Lung Cancer

People suffering from any disease know the importance of having a strong support network surrounding them. While family and friends provide crucial support, for sufferers of mesothelioma and lung cancer there are a number of ways to build that support network.

  1. Become informed about mesothelioma and asbestos-related diseases. The first step in building a support network is the one you build for yourself through education and awareness. Whether you have been affected by asbestos exposure or someone you know has, it is important to not only know the basic signs and symptoms of mesothelioma and lung cancer, but also to stay on top of the latest in research, treatment, and technology. In addition to speaking to your doctor, consult some of these trusted and reliable websites for information about asbestos, mesothelioma, lung cancer, and other asbestos-related diseases.
  2. Find emotional support is through disease specific support groups. Other members will not only understand what you are going through physically and emotionally, they may also alert you to new developments in research, medicine, and technology, and help you get through the potential side effects of treatments.Support groups exist both in-person and online. If you are a veteran or a member of the military suffering from an asbestos-related disease, check with your local Veterans Affairs office if there are any support groups in your area. Below are some additional resources:
  1. Seek community support through broader organizations. In addition to cancer-specific support groups, sufferers of mesothelioma and lung cancer should utilize other networks available to them. Senior citizen groups, for example, will not necessarily have other sufferers of asbestos-related disease, but they will have other people in the same age range, many of whom are dealing with other health ailments, as well as questions about social security and health benefits appropriate for their age group.
  2. Stay connected through social media. Tapping into online communities can be an effective way to keep yourself in-the-know on the latest in research, treatment, and technology and collaborate with others suffering from asbestos-related diseases and their families, and medical professionals and social workers who specialize in this area.  On Twitter, the following groups and organizations provide a wealth of information and serve as online community hubs for those wanting to learn more about mesothelioma or asbestos-related diseases:

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