The cancer that killed a servicemen at HMAS Albatross was in all likelihood caused by exposure to asbestos fibres and toxic chemicals, according to an Australian Defence Force report.
The Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force concluded Petty Officer Greg Lukes’ exposure to respirable asbestos fibres, petroleum, petroleum by-products, toxins or a combination of these while serving with the 817 Squadron, the home of the Sea King Helicopter, had in all likelihood caused his cancer.
In early 2012, Petty Officer Greg Lukes was a fit 35-year-old, married with two adorable kids.
He had everything to live for and a full life ahead of him.
Within two years the avionics technician was dead.
Greg’s wife Kristen welcomed the report, saying she hoped it sheds light on her husband’s death, provides other serving members with information and could be used for education.
“I just hope this report ensures similar instances don’t happen again,” she said.
“I don’t want other families to go through what we have had to, in losing Greg.”
Greg and Kristen were married for eight years and had been together for 15 years at the time of his death.
He joined the navy as a 17-year-old in 1997 and 817 Squadron in 1999.
As an avionics technician it was his job to maintain the aircraft and fix any electronic issues that may arise.
“He loved his job and he loved the navy,” Kristen said.
“And he was highly respected. He was the go-to man when it came to fixing problems.”
But ultimately it appears his role, which included changing fuel lines, rewiring, having his head inside fuel tanks which put him in contact with some of the products mentioned in the report and the fact he was so good at his job, may have contributed to his death.
In early 2012 Greg passed blood in his urine but hoped it was nothing serious and put up with it thinking it might have been a bladder infection.
“Men are stubborn. They have a ‘I’ll be right’ attitude, tend to suck it up and don’t want to be seen as not being tough enough,” Kristen said.
Finally after complaining about a sore back he went to the doctor and had a scan the following day.
It showed a seven centimetre, grapefruit sized tumour on his kidney. Within five days he had surgery.
Doctors removed his kidney, spleen and lymph nodes around his kidney and were confident they had removed all the cancer.
“We thought it was over,” Kristen said.
Testing revealed it was a rare, aggressive form of cancer which attacked the collection ducts of the kidney. Spots were also discovered on his lungs, which were monitored.
Greg underwent chemotherapy, with the professor saying he was one of the fittest people he had ever had undertake treatment.
“Greg continued to work through his treatment and for the first year everything seemed to be going well,” Kristen said.
“But then he slowly started to deteriorate. You can only do chemo for so long and when you stop, the treatment stops working.
“The spots in his lungs grew. We tried other treatments, other drugs but eventually your body grows resistant and they don’t work.
“The cancer spread to his bones and eventually his liver.
“You get that sick that you can’t undertaken other treatments.”
Diagnosed on March 16, 2012, Greg died on May 18, 2014.
His daughter Breanna was aged six and son Jacob four and a half at the time.
“Greg had an inkling his illness may be linked to his his job but it wasn’t until one of the oncologists said his cancer was a rare kind of cancer similar to that found among workers with F111 personnel at Richmond that we really started to think about it,” Kristen said.
“If he hadn’t mentioned that we probably would have been none the wiser.
“The navy has come a long way. Now they have PPE [personal protective equipment]. They are miles ahead but Greg paid the price.”
Any time a serving defence personnel is killed or dies while in service there is an inquiry.
Mrs Lukes was part of the inquiry into her husband’s death, interviewed by the Inspector-General and Chief of Defence.
“It is important defence undertakes such inquires so things can change in the future or determining how to improve things,” she said.
“People have asked me why it has taken two years for the findings to come out.
“I’m happy it has taken so long. I would be more worried if the findings were out after a month. At least this way they have had time to conduct a thorough investigation.
“I hope they can learn from this,” she said.
“It is a relief that other people are and have been made aware of the possible dangers. If nothing else there is now an awareness and education for people.
“People always think these sorts of things happen to other people, but sometimes they don’t. This time, that somebody was me.
“The findings are a step in the right direction. Even the acknowledgement that it may have contributed to Greg’s illness hopefully opens doors for other people to get support.
“We received support from DVA (Department of Veterans Affairs). The navy and in particular Greg’s friends have been so supportive of me and the kids.
“I still have a lot of friends in the navy.”
The navy has honoured Greg with the PO Greg Lukes Senior Sailor of the Year Award and also named another safety award after him.
Life has moved on for Kristen. She is ready for the next chapter which includes getting married next Friday.