Mike Partain

For the first thirty-nine years of my life Camp Lejeune was nothing more to me than a faded name printed on my birth certificate. We are a Marine family. My father is a Naval Academy Graduate and served in the Marine Corps as an officer. My grandfather retired in 1961 as a major in the Marine Corps.

This all changed in April of 2007 after my wife gave me a hug before bed one night. As she did, her hand came across a curious bump situated above my right nipple. There was no pain but if felt very odd. At first, I dismissed the bump as a cyst that would go away, but after a few weeks it persisted. My wife then insisted that I go see our family doctor. As I sat in the waiting room waiting for my doctor I was not worried. The idea of cancer never entered my mind. Why should it? I do not drink, I do not smoke, nor have I ever abused drugs. I thought I was a healthy 39-year-old man. Doctor Perry came into the room and looked me over. He advised that he wanted me to have a mammogram. I paused and asked him to repeat his request as a tinge of fear spread down my spine. He told me that he was unsure what the bump was and it had best be safe to have it checked. I felt reassured and made the appointment for the following week.

I arrived at the mammography unit by myself just before work on a Friday morning. I waited as several women were called back for their mammograms. It was nearly an hour before they called me. When I entered the mammography unit, everything was decked in pink and pastels. The nurse handed me a smock covered with flower embroidery and I smiled as I said it was not necessary. The mammogram itself took only a few minutes; it was the wait that seemed to stop time. After about 5 more minutes, the nurse re-entered the room and asked if they could take a few more pictures. A cold surge flowed through my body. After 10 more minutes, which seemed like hours, the nurse came back and asked if I would mind waiting for the radiologist to arrive at the office. I found myself beginning to breathe shallow with a nervous pace. I was then taken to another room and placed on a table next to a sonogram. I looked up at the screen as the technician ran the wand over my breast. There before me, glowing on the display, was a solid mass with thousands of tiny white speckles. I later learned they were called micro calcifications and are that they are a tell-tale sign of malignant cancer. The radiologist then advised me to see a surgeon for a needle biopsy. It was also at this time that I first heard the term male breast cancer. On the outside I remained calm, but inside full panic ensued. What about my family? My children? Will I be there to see them graduate? Get married? How will they get by without me? I spent every moment with my family that weekend feeling as if I was a dead man walking. The nightmares were horrible.

A few days later, the biopsy was taken and on my eighteenth wedding anniversary, I was officially diagnosed with male breast cancer at the age of 39. My surgery was scheduled for the first week of May. I could not sleep for the next few days as my mind raced. Everyone I have ever known before with cancer, died. I ventured onto the internet and found a few articles about male breast cancer and they all talked about how rare and deadly the disease was for men. My tumor was measured to be 2.5 cm and another hard spot was identified under my right armpit. The surgeon could only tell me that we would only know the extent of the disease once they completed the surgery to remove my right breast. Years before, when I was in college, I had a gun placed to my head during a robbery as another gunman’s pistol whipped the manager of the restaurant where I worked. I was scared then. Now I was terrified.

During the time immediately after my surgery, we were all puzzled by how and why I developed this rare disease. My surgeon, who was a breast cancer expert, said that he had only seen a few cases of the disease in men and that I was the youngest he had seen. The rarity of the disease also attracted a local TV station that did a short piece about me a few weeks after my breast was removed. Thankfully, the cancer remained confined to my breast, but chemotherapy was recommended due to the size of my tumor. We all wondered how and why I was stricken with male breast cancer, especially since there was no history of the disease in my family, male or female.

Looking for answers, we traveled 140 miles to Shands Hospital attached to the University of Florida. They reviewed my case and concurred with my local oncologist’s recommendations with the exception of what type of chemotherapy I should have. More importantly, I was tested for the hereditary breast cancer markers, BRCA 1 and 2. I was worried about my three girls and son and wanted to know if they would face the same monster within. Thankfully the tests were negative and according to the geneticists at Shands, my chances of developing male breast cancer in the general population were less than a half a percent without the markers. I was left wondering what contest in hell did I deserve to get this prize?

My chemotherapy was scheduled to begin on June 15th, 2007. A few days earlier I found myself walking out of the surgeon’s office for a post operative visit when I received a phone call from my father. I immediately sensed something was wrong and thought that something had happened to my mother because his voice cracked with fear. It unsettled me as I had seldom heard that emotion in his voice. He asked me where I was and to get my butt home and turn on CNN immediately because there was something on about Camp Lejeune that I needed to see.

When I arrived home, the TV was already on and tuned into CNN. As I walked up, the announcer began the lead into the story and mentioned the phrase drinking water contamination and Camp Lejeune. Then a clip from a Congressional hearing held earlier that day played and I saw Jerry for the first time as he testified before the committee on Capitol Hill. As I watched he stated that the children born on the base between January 1968 and December 1985 were being studied for their exposures to the contaminated tap water aboard the base. I grabbed the couch to steady myself as my legs turned to mush. My birthday is January 30th 1968 and I was one of those children. Suddenly, I knew what had happened to me and why. All I knew was that I had to reach Jerry and tell him about what had happened to me. I called Rep. Stupak’s office and pleaded with them to please have Jerry call me as soon as possible.

About an hour before my first chemotherapy session, Jerry called me and we talked. He was shocked when I told him about my diagnosis. He said that he had not heard of this type of cancer before at Camp Lejeune. I told Jerry that I wanted to help and learn more. He told me that I needed to concentrate on my treatments and health first, and that he would get back to me.

Chemo was rough for me. I have always been leery of putting things in my body. I knew that I had to do it, but I hated the idea of chemo. It scared me. The first session was not too bad. The chemo veterans welcomed me into the room, made jokes about the “Red Devil” and tried to comfort me. It looked like Kool-Aid. They started the IV and then the drug. I could feel it move up my arm, across my face and eyes and into my right side. That really unnerved me. It took everything I had not to rip it out and go home. I just sat there feeling totally defeated. They gave me anti-nausea drugs so I did not get sick. My employer was gracious enough to adjust my work schedule so I could take treatments and continue to work. It was important to me to maintain a normal life and not just sit at home. After two or three days, I’d start feeling somewhat better, enough to walk around and go to work. This would last two weeks. Then on the third week I would get geared up for the next treatment. The night before I was always anxious and couldn’t sleep. I was terrified.

During my treatments I began to read over some of the documents posted on the USMC’s website. I looked over their timeline and quickly noted that while it seemed fair, it was too generalized and key points were missing. As I looked through the documents, I was left confused and began emailing Jerry asking questions about what I had read. This lasted a few months until just before my last chemotherapy session. Jerry called me and we talked about Camp Lejeune and some of the documents I had worked on from the website. He complimented me on my attention to detail with the documents and asked if I could serve on the Camp Lejeune Community Assistance Panel (CAP) at the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). I immediately volunteered and was placed on the panel.

Jerry and I met in person for the first time in December of 2007. I looked like death warmed over as I was still pale and completely hairless from my chemotherapy which ended the month before. I can still remember the faces of the Navy and USMC representatives when I first walked into the room. It was like watching a train wreck; they could not help but to stare at me in horror and disbelief. Personally, I hope it gave them all nightmares.

As Jerry and I got to know each other and became friends, he took me under his wing and taught me everything he knew about Camp Lejeune. My degree is in History and before I became a claims investigator, I taught History to gifted children in High School. Investigating and piecing together the history of the Camp Lejeune drinking water contamination was right up my alley, so to speak. I told Jerry what we needed was a timeline of events linked to the Navy and Marine Corps’s own documents. Jerry liked the idea and tasked me to make it happen. Over the next eight months I researched and wrote the timeline as Jerry fact-checked it and provided guidance. The timeline was ready by the summer of 2008 and I announced it during our quarterly CAP meeting. I knew we immediately hit a nerve with it, when a Marine Jag Colonel and an HQMC civilian employee flanked me at the break while I was still sitting in my chair. They rapidly asked question after question about my work. As the Colonel walked away, the civilian employees scolded me and told me that we would not find any “smoking guns” in the documents. They were wrong. Our timeline has been one of our important weapons in our fight to get the truth out of the Marine Corps and the Navy.

My involvement in our fight has also come at a personal price. Jerry has led the way for fourteen years and has kept this issue alive long enough for countless people, including myself, to discover what happened to them while aboard the base. We have no funding and all of our travels to Washington are paid out of our own pockets. I work a full time job during the day and work Camp Lejeune at night, often far past midnight. For the past three years, almost all my vacation time has been spent traveling to Washington with Jerry to meet with Congressional staff or to testify in Congress about Camp Lejeune. I feel a strong sense of duty to speak out and fight to help others. The fact that I contracted a rare cancer and survived has given me a voice in this fight along with responsibility to take action. Since my diagnosis in 2007, we have located at least 72 other men who share the unique commonality of working and/or living aboard Camp Lejeune during the drinking water contamination period and developing male breast cancer afterwards. I wonder how many more men with breast cancer we will find before this is over.