AFMS strives to reduce Mesothelioma

  • Published
  • By Shireen Bedi
  • Air Force Surgeon General Public Affairs
A rare type of cancer, mesothelioma packs a deadly punch with a very low survival rate and short life expectancy. Fortunately, the Air Force is equipped with teams of health care providers familiar with the most current mesothelioma research and treatment options.

Mesothelioma mostly impacts the layer of tissue that surround the lungs and, in rare cases, the lining of the abdomen and heart. The most common cause of mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos. Essentially, the cancer starts when the cells in these areas of the body start growing abnormally.

“About 70 percent of mesothelioma cases will be associated with documented asbestos exposure,” said Lt. Col. Roger Wood, the Air Force Medical Service consultant for internal medicine, hematology, and oncology. “Other causes of mesothelioma are exposure to chemicals with similar properties to asbestos, but these cases are rare.”

Symptoms usually do not show up until about 30 to 40 years after asbestos exposure with an average age of patients being 60 years or older. These symptoms include such things as chest pain, shortness of breath, cough, hoarseness of the throat, and pain under the rib cage or abdomen.

Mesothelioma is extremely difficult to cure. Depending on the stage of cancer and other factors such as age, the life expectancy of patients with mesothelioma can be less than a year once diagnosed.

“Even though mesothelioma is not a common type of cancer, the outcome or prognosis once diagnosed is usually not good,” said Wood. “Most patients are not diagnosed until the cancer has progressed and is more aggressive.”

This is why it is important to minimize exposure to asbestos both at home and at work. For many years, asbestos was valued as a durable and affordable building material, commonly used as insulation, fireproofing, and in automotive equipment. Over time, fibers can get loose in the air and inhaled. Asbestos exposure over a long period increases the risk of mesothelioma.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends that individuals regularly have their home inspected and hire professionals to help with asbestos removal. Regulations have minimized the use of asbestos in homes and in the workplace.

According to Wood, the Air Force has been proactive for decades in following regulations and has worked to minimize asbestos exposure. Specifically, the Air Force has discontinued the use of asbestos in aircraft and on base. These actions have caused the rates of mesothelioma to decline in recent years.

“The incidences peaked around the year 2000 and have since declined due to control of exposure to asbestos,” said Wood. “Now there are about 3,300 new cases of mesothelioma per year in the United States.

“Mesothelioma is not well studied. At the same time there are promising new treatment options that are being researched. Patients should be encouraged to be involved in these clinical trials, which are supported by the National Cancer Institute. This can be a vital way to find a more effective cure.”

More information on mesothelioma and asbestos exposure can be found on