October 22, 2012

Mesothelioma: A Silent Threat for the Merchant Marines

(This is a guest post by Emily Walsh, a Community Outreach Blogger for the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance. She also writes for the MCA on various veteran and military health topic and very kindly offered to write here. Also see  more of her writing here- a great site)

For members of the Merchant Marines, service never ends. Providing valuable cargo transport both in times of peace and war, many hours are logged in cramped quarters of boats. Unfortunately, many veterans are discovering a major health hazard of such working conditions: mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma is a cancer that affects the thin lining that covers lungs, heart and abdomen. The main cause of the disease is asbestos exposure. Asbestos was used as an insulator in ships and other military structures, especially during World War II through the Vietnam War. Even though the dangers of asbestos are now well know and it is being removed, the symptoms of mesothelioma take decades to appear. In the United States, only 2,000-3,000 new cases are diagnosed per year, and at least 30% of those are military veterans.

Asbestos is a mineral with long, flexible fibers that can be spun into heat-resistant materials. Production skyrocketed in the 1940s, where it was used for construction materials, vehicle brake pads, and insulation. Ships used by the Merchant Marines had pipes and boilers coated with asbestos for fire protection, so anyone involved with building or repairing ships would be exposed. They would carry fibers on their clothing and hair, contributing to second-hand exposure for those living around them. On a ship, with few open spaces, asbestos would easily be transferred to much of the crew.

Mesothelioma symptoms don't show up until 20-50 years after exposure. When they do present, they are similar to symptoms of other, more common and less lethal, diseases. Coughing, fatigue, shortness of breath, fever and night sweats could be pneumonia, but could also be warning signs of mesothelioma.

After taking a thorough medical history, a doctor may order some initial tests to check for abnormalities associated with this type of cancer. These tests may include a chest x-ray, MRI or CT scan. If any suspicious growths are detected, a biopsy is ordered to gather a tissue sample and check the status of the cells.

Once a positive diagnosis has been made, treatment can begin. The most common treatments are chemotherapy, surgery and radiation, and doctors often use a combination of treatments for better results. Many patients report finding relief in alternative therapies. Unfortunately, there is no cure yet for mesothelioma and life expectancies are still short. Significant discoveries have been made, but there is still a long way to go.