The members of our armed forces, active and veterans, make tremendous sacrifices to serve our country. Their lung health should not be one of them. They have earned all the support we can give them. This Veteran's Day, we talked to a decorated Gulf War veteran and learned how he, like a true Marine, is battling lung cancer head on.
Mark Smith is a decorated Marine Colonel, veteran of the first and second Gulf Wars, and a lung cancer survivor. Smith grew up in Indianapolis, and in his senior year in high school, he decided to join the Marine Corps. In 1991, he was deployed to Iraq as part of Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm. While in service in Saudi Arabia, he was very close to burning oil wells, breathing the harsh black smoke daily.
"To say the sky had black smoke was really a misnomer. The sky WAS black smoke!" recalls Smith. "That's all we breathed for about a month, thick, black air."
A few years after he returned home, he noticed a troubling change in his breathing. He felt like he wasn't getting enough air. He was diagnosed with asthma, took asthma medication, and moved on, as a Marine reserve and a state police officer. Following 9/11, he was recalled to service and deployed to Iraq. His lungs were again exposed to harsh conditions – the open burn pits used to handle the base's waste. Smith remembers again "constantly breathing in toxic air."
Fast forward to 2012 and Smith, just about to be discharged, is diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer. "No one can say 100 percent what caused it, but I have never smoked, and if you look at my history of exposure to toxic air, it seems to make sense," Smith says. "My training as a Marine prepared me to face it head on, and with the help of my family, we decided to fight the cancer!"
Luckily, for Smith, the cancer had not spread beyond his lungs, and he has responded well to treatment. He's now almost a five-year survivor! He's also active with his local American Lung Association, sharing his story wherever he can, and involved in supporting veterans' health.
"I do feel that our troops are at special risk of lung disease because of the unusual and harsh conditions they may serve in," he says. "I believe we are seeing an increase in veterans with lung conditions from deployments in the Gulf Wars."
His advice to other veterans? "Advocate to support veterans' healthcare and be proactive about your own health," he advises. "Resist the 'Superman mentality' that it can never happen to me. Talk to your doctor, and if you're at risk, get scanned."
The Lung Association has been active in a number of veteran's health issues, including promoting low-dose CT scans for veterans at high risk for lung cancer, and advocating for the creation of a registry for anyone exposed to burn pit smoke. Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable illness and death in America, and active duty military have higher smoking rates than the general public. This can mean higher rates of lung cancer and COPD for veterans later in life. The Lung Association has been active in promoting efforts to reduce smoking in the military and to make quit-smoking therapies readily available for both active military and veterans.
Additionally, while smoking is the leading risk factor for lung cancer, other risk factors include radon, air pollution, genetics, exposure to hazardous chemicals and exposure to secondhand smoke. Anyone with lungs can get lung cancer.
Veterans who have lung disease or are caregivers of someone with lung disease can also join one of our many free support communities we host on Inspire.com. They include: