Vigilance is an important tool to have while serving in any branch of the U.S. armed forces.
It can be equally important to the good, long-term health of any retired veteran. Vigilance means knowing that common symptoms could signal the start of an uncommon and very serious disease.
Malignant pleural mesothelioma, which is diagnosed in an inordinate number of veterans today, has no widely accepted screening test like a colonoscopy or a mammogram. But it does present some initial symptoms that could lead to critical early detection, a fighting chance against this cancer caused by asbestos exposure, and improved life expectancy.
Veterans with a background that also includes past occupational exposure to asbestos in certain industries, including manufacturing, construction, shipyards, ships and automobile repair, should watch closely if typical flu-like symptoms do not dissipate normally.
“Don’t sit at home and try to be a hero if these symptoms don’t go away in a couple weeks after taking antibiotics,” said nationally renowned mesothelioma specialist Dr. Rodney Landreneau, Division Director of Thoracic Surgery at the Allegheny Health Network in Pennsylvania. “Don’t just blow off the symptoms. Make sure your doctor doesn’t either. Ask for an X-ray to start. It could be something more serious.”
Mesothelioma is diagnosed in an estimated 3,000 Americans annually. About one-third of those are military veterans, and a large portion served in the U.S. Navy, where asbestos products once were used so extensively. Asbestos was used in all branches of service to strengthen, fireproof and generally help protect personnel.
Although the military has dramatically reduced the use of asbestos in recent decades, once its toxic nature was fully understood, the disease typically has a latency period of 20-50 years between exposure and disease development.
Those who served between the 1950s and early 1980s, when the use of products containing asbestos was prevalent, are most at risk. So pay attention. Typical mesothelioma symptoms could include:
Symptoms could also signal a chronic inflammatory condition known as pleural plaques, which are areas of fibrous thickening on the lining of the lungs.
Although these plaques initially are not cancerous, they likely signal a significant past exposure to asbestos and a future, increased risk of mesothelioma, according to specialists.
The plaques are something a doctor can monitor, making sure that if mesothelioma does develop, you catch it early through a series of diagnostic procedures now in place at many treatment centers around the country.
There is no cure for mesothelioma, but there are curative therapies if it is caught early enough.
“If we catch it early enough, it’s something we can really help people with. It can make a huge difference. Mesothelioma is not just a death sentence anymore,” Landreneau said. “There have been wonderful advancements in treating this disease in recent years.”
Because it’s a relatively rare disease, it’s imperative to find a specialist with experience treating it. The VA Healthcare System, fortunately, has two of the finest thoracic surgeons who specialize in mesothelioma.
Thoracic surgeon Robert Cameron is at the West Los Angeles VA. He is also a scientific adviser at the Pacific Meso Center. Abraham Lebenthal is at the Boston VA Healthcare facility and nearby Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Patients in the VA Healthcare system today can get a referral from their local VA to travel and see one of the specialists.
Both are strong believers in the multimodal approach to treatment that includes a combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. They are pioneers in the highly effective hyperthermic chemotherapy/surgical debulking procedure.
“There are things we can do to help patients now,” Lebenthal said. “Therapies are much more effective today than they were. We can extend lives and give veterans hope. If a vet has been diagnosed, he should find a way to come see one of the specialists.”