Health and Fitness

UK's First Asbestos-Related Cancer Nurse To Focus On Military Patients

Asbestos was once commonly used in military vehicles, ships and buildings.

The UK's first nurse to specialise in an asbestos-related cancer is to focus on patients with a military background.

More than 2,600 people in the UK are diagnosed with mesothelioma every year, with 80-100 of those Armed Forces veterans.

The disease, which is rarely possible to cure, is almost always caused by exposure to asbestos - an insulating material used in buildings between the 1940s and 1970s.

Asbestos was also commonly used in military vehicles, ships and buildings as a fire resistant material.

In 2018, Helen Wilkes became the UK’s only Mesothelioma Clinical Nurse Specialist to focus on helping serving personnel and veterans affected by the cancer. 

"I often find that people once they've left the Armed Forces family, if you like, they often get away from all the support that there is and they're not quite sure what there is," she said.

Nurse Helen Wilkes and veteran John Myers

"The Armed Forces project is trying to show them that there is support out there and so we can signpost them in the right way.

"When anyone's diagnosed with a cancer, especially mesothelioma, which is incurable, all the patient can remember is the word 'cancer'.

"That's why I'm there to empower them and give them the right support, advice and information."

The information Nurse Wilkes will be providing includes what benefits are available, treatment options, and the latest clinical trials.

The nationwide programme is part of a Government-funded initiative, supported by money raised by two mesothelioma charities.

Among those receiving care is RAF pilot veteran John Myers.

Mr Myers recalled the moment he was diagnosed as "like being hit by an express train".

His symptoms only appeared decades after he was exposed to asbestos.

"Basically they say 'you've got this disease, it is terminal, we can't cure it but we can manage it'," he said.

Nurse Helen Wilkes

"You just think 'ah, wait a minute. That's it, that's the end'. But it isn't, you can go on and people are there to help you do it." 

"Helen understands the family affair of the forces and that's a big help.

"At the moment, I'm in the very early stages but I suppose as times goes on, things are going to get sticky and that's when I'm going to need the information to make my own decision about what I do next and that will be based on what Helen and other nurses tell me."  

Nurse Wilkes now holds a full-time role at Southampton General Hospital and will also work with a benefits advisor to look at benefits and compensation claims for military patients. 

She will also work alongside Sheffield University to carry out a military experience study to see how veterans can be better supported in future.