By Ami Schmitz and Kristina Krohn
Mike Partain got the shock of his life five years ago when he was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 39. That he got breast cancer at all is surprising. It's so rare that for every 100 women who get it, just one man will.
“Five years ago I was just an ordinary father of four, husband of 18 years. And one night, my then-wife gave me a hug and she felt a bump on my chest,” he said in an interview with Dr. Nancy Snyderman airing tonight at 10pm/9CT on NBC News’ Rock Center with Brian Williams.
When his doctor delivered the devastating news in a phone call, Partain’s first thought was, “What contest in hell did I win to deserve this?”
After his diagnosis, Partain was desperate to answer the question, “why”? He said, “I don't drink. I don't smoke. I've never done drugs. There is no history of breast cancer in my family.”
But everything changed after he saw a news report, where a former Marine drill instructor named Jerry Ensminger told Congress how his 9-year-old daughter Janey died of leukemia, and that he believed her death was caused by drinking water at Camp Lejeune contaminated with chemicals.
“My knees buckled,” Mike said, “I grabbed the back of the couch and I sat there. I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is what happened.’”
The son of a Marine, Partain was born at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. He soon learned that there had been a long history of suspicion about the water at Camp Lejeune.
“The entire time my mother was pregnant with me, we were drinking high levels of tetrachloroethylene, trichloroethylene, and benzene in our water” he said. Partain believes these chemicals caused his breast cancer.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that between 500,000 and 1 million people were exposed to the contaminated water from 1953 to 1987, when the last of several contaminated wells were closed.
Partain has found 83 other men who lived or served at Camp Lejeune who have also been diagnosed with male breast cancer.
Peter Devereaux, a 50-year-old a former Marine, is one of them. He was diagnosed in 2008.
Devereaux remembers when his doctor first let him know he had breast cancer.
“I was just like, whooo. Even now I've said that so many times, it still takes your breath away,” he said.
Dr. Katherine Ruddy, a medical oncologist at Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, is Devereaux’s doctor.
“When Peter was first diagnosed, he had a stage III cancer. And approximately a year later, we did find that he had distant metastases to his bones,” said Ruddy. She says his cancer is terminal.
Like Devereaux, most men tend to get diagnosed at later stages than women do, which decreases their survival, according to Ruddy. Devereaux needed a mastectomy and hormone treatment, both of which are common for men with male breast cancer. But the side effects of hormone treatments affect men differently than women, according to Ruddy.
“Men are not used to hot flashes and I think it is a particularly challenge for men to deal with the side effects of our treatments, including the hot flashes from our endocrine therapies that just are not something that they went into this expecting to feel,” Ruddy said.
It is not just the disease that upsets the men from Camp Lejeune. They are angry because of how they believe they got cancer.
A Lab reports from 1980 show that the United States Marine Corps started routinely testing tap water back in 1980. Testing eventually revealed one sample that contained 280 times the acceptable standard of Trichloroethylene (TCE), a chemical which can cause cancer.
Some of the chemicals were linked to a dry cleaner off base that has since closed. But a recently-released report found that the worst contamination came directly from the Marine Corps, because of its industrial waste practices and from leaking fuel storage tanks. One document, released by the CDC in December 2012, details how over 1 million gallons of fuel seeped into the ground from underground storage tanks, contaminating the camp’s well water.
Officials say that while testing of the tap water began in 1980, it took them four years to determine exactly which wells were contaminated, and that once those wells were identified, they were shut down immediately. Partain says the Marine Corps should have closed the wells earlier. “They chose to keep those wells on for whatever reason and did not begin shutting the wells down until 1984,” he said.
As for any connection between the chemicals in the water and cancer, Marine Corps officials maintain that "reliable scientific evidence is lacking" to prove one way or another whether the water contamination caused any illness. But Dr. Richard Clapp, one of the nation’s most respected experts in cancer and the environment, disagrees.
“The level [of contamination] in the drinking water was the highest that I've ever seen,” said Clapp, an epidemiologist at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. “I've been working on this kind of thing for 30 years. I have never heard of a community that's had the levels of contaminants that they had at Camp Lejeune.”
He has examined the data from Camp Lejeune and says he believes the contamination and the cancers are related. “The cluster of disease-- for example, male breast cancer-- may also turn out to be the highest that's been seen anywhere. “
Though the Marine Corps has not acknowledged a link between the bad water and any illness, Congress felt there was enough evidence to act to help the veterans who believed the water at Camp Lejeune made them sick. In 2012 the president signed a law providing health benefits to Camp Lejeune veterans and their families who can prove the contamination made them sick.
The law lists several types of diseases that may be related to the poisoned water at Camp Lejeune, including childhood leukemia as well as cancers of the kidney, lung, bladder and breast. But it has been hard for the male breast cancer patients who believe they’re cancer was caused by contaminated water at Camp Lejeune to get benefits, which are managed through the Veteran’s Administration.
One former Camp Lejeune Marine, Tom Gervasi, says he has been denied benefits several times. He says that for him, time is of the essence.
“I've got stage 4 terminal cancer. My survival is minimal. What I worry about is my wife, and her being taken care of by the VA and the Marine Corps, if at all possible,” Gervasi said.
The men are waiting on a report due out this year from the CDC's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) that they believe may help them prove it was the water that made them sick, and that the Marine Corps is, in fact, responsible.
Partain and Camp Lejeune families say the CDC analysis, which began more than 20 years ago, is taking too long. Dr. Christopher Portier, the director of the ATSDR told NBC News “I think we are late on this one.” Now he says he is pushing his staff to finish quickly. “Our responsibility for these people is to do the absolute best science, make sure we get it exactly right so nobody can challenge any of our results when we're done.”
As everyone waits for the report, Partain and his men want the Marine Corps and the Veterans Administration to step up and take care of their Marines and their families. Partain asks, “When is the leadership of the Marine Corps going to stand up and say we made a mistake?”
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