I was exposed, but no one ever bothered to tell me
By Mike Partain
The only thing cancer can’t destroy is your spirit, unless you allow it dominion over you. My friend Peter Devereaux taught me this through his fight with metastatic male breast cancer.
My cancer story began with a hug from my now ex-wife. She felt a curious bump above my right nipple in April 2007, when I was 39. I was employed as a claims adjuster at State Farm Insurance. There was neither pain nor discharge, just a grape sized bump. At first, I just thought it was an ingrown hair, so I did nothing. A couple of weeks later, it was still there and I went to see my family doctor. Dr. Perry was puzzled and said, “I don’t know what it is, but I don’t like it” and advised me that he was ordering a mammogram, or in my case a man-o-gram.
The trip to the women’s center was surreal. I went alone and sat in the waiting room for some time as name after name was called but not mine. Finally, I went up to the desk to ask what was why I had not been called and was told, “Oh, we were waiting for your wife.” Then I told them the appointment was for me! A few minutes later I was taken back to the examination room and given a flowered gown, an iddy biddy, little smock that seemed four sizes too small. The technician didn’t even know what to say; I just smiled and advised her that I didn’t need it as I looked up at the nice floral border on the pink walls wondering what in the hell is going on here?
The technician returned a few minutes later and proceeded to smash my chest in between two plates. She said that it hurts worse for smaller chested women as I looked at her bewildered. After the shots were completed, she left the room and told me that it would be a few minutes for them to look at the images. When the tech returned, the expression on her face had changed and an uneasiness settled into my bones. She said, “I’m sorry, but we need more shots.” The second set of shots were followed up by a request to wait for the radiologist because she wanted to see me before I left.
The next step was a sonogram of my right breast. By then, the uneasiness blossomed into a quiet panic as I knew something was wrong. The ‘c’ word tried to creep into my thoughts, but I refused to give it credence. I remember lifting my head up towards the sonogram monitor, you know the ones where you get your first glimpses of your unborn child. Except this time, I didn’t see a baby in the womb. My first thought was that I was looking through my telescope, a hobby of mine. I saw clusters of bright white specs gathered together into a ball. In astronomy, we call them globular clusters. It looked like a disco ball, but the medical profession had another name for what I observed on the screen. The tiny white dots are called micro-calcifications and they are the tell-tale signs of cancer. But at the time, I was naively looking at stars on the display screen. Then I overheard someone in the room say, “This doesn’t look good.” Next thing I knew was that the following Monday, I had an appointment with a surgeon for a needle biopsy. I went the whole weekend not knowing what was going on. They never said the word cancer but deep down inside the termites named themselves to my subconscious. I couldn’t function. All I could think about was my family. I wondered if my girls and son were going to grow up without a father. What would they do without me?
Over the weekend I took my family to the movie, Meet the Robinsons, in order to take my mind off things. The theme song from the movie, “Little Wonders by Rob Thomas”, struck a chord with me and I left the movie balling. At that moment the song became my anthem.
The next day was time to go back to the doctor, once again I went by myself. I didn’t want to worry anyone. It was just a test, and I didn’t want my then wife to worry as well. Dr. Robert Snyder of Tallahassee Memorial Hospital did my needle biopsy. It hurt like hell. Dr. Snyder told me what he saw looked like cancer, presented like cancer, but we’d have to wait for the biopsy results to be sure. The termite voices grew louder. He told me that he would have the results by Wednesday and set my appointment for 1 pm.
The next I went with my daughter Danielle to Medieval Times. Our bus broke down on the way, and all I could think of was, “Is this how my daughter’s going to remember me? Am I going to see her graduate, go to college, have a family?” So many unanswered questions.
That Wednesday was my appointment along with my 18th wedding anniversary. This time my ex-wife came with me to the doctor to hear the biopsy results. “Mike, it’s cancer and it’s serious.” I remember asking the doctor if my breast cancer was metastatic? All Dr. Snyder could tell me was that he wouldn’t know until he opened me up. He promised me that he would be there when I woke to personally tell me what he found. For the first time, I accepted that I was facing a battle with cancer and the first step in this battle was a radical mastectomy at 39-years-old. Up until then, I lived a healthy life, I was active, I didn’t eat bad stuff, I didn’t drink, yet I heard the words, “You have cancer.” What contest in Hell did I win to deserve this?
I asked the surgeon how many men with breast cancer he had treated, he replied, “Honestly, I’d have to study up. It’s been a while.”
The first few days after my diagnosis were the worst. You see, cancer is like having termites in your home; you know they’re there, you know they’re destroying your house, but there isn’t a thing you can do about it. Cancer is a lesson in humility.
These days a breast cancer diagnosis is a process. First, I’m sent to scheduling, then insurance, and then to another room for something else, like I was on some type of factory assembly line. When we arrived at the last room, which was much smaller than the rest, I noticed there were three things on a desk. They were small, medium and large breast implants. Behind us walked a 25-year-old nurse who was tasked to explain breast reconstruction to a big burly guy. She didn’t know how to broach the subject. I smiled and told her, I wanted a set of matching 36DDs like my wife which was immediately followed by an elbow in my rib from her. I told the nurse, “I just want this cancer out of my body.” I joked about it, saying that I could just tell people I was attacked by a shark at the beach, or I wrestled an alligator while kayaking, or some other manly story as to why I had one breast.
The next immediate hurdle was surgery which was scheduled for four weeks. I was a father of four and husband of 18 years. For a man suddenly faced with the thought of his family without him and on the streets, it kept me up at night. I told the doctors they either needed to give me tranquilizers or move my surgery up. They moved up my surgery.
My whole family was there with me for the surgery. I couldn’t ask for better support. Dr. Snyder came in to the room for a pre-op visit. He circled my right breast and explained the surgery and procedures he would perform. They wheeled me back and started to prep me for surgery. Just before the operation commenced, I told Dr. Snyder not to forget to take out the alien transmitter inside me. He laughed and just said, “Put him under!”
My official diagnosis was Stage 2b breast cancer. My right breast was removed along with 1 lymph node under my right arm. The cancer margins were clear and I was slated for 8 rounds of chemotherapy. After this, I was prescribed Tamoxifen, but could only tolerate it for 12 months before I quit due to a number of side effects, including hormonal disruption.
All this time I kept racking my mind, wondering how and why I developed breast cancer. A local TV station heard about me and requested a story because it was so unusual. The answers began to fill in a month after my mastectomy. My father called me as I left a doctor’s appointment to drain my surgical area of fluid accumulating after surgery. He was a former Marine, so there was not a lot of emotion in my family growing up. This time, I heard emotion in his voice. He asked where I was and told me “to get my ass home and turn on CNN right now”, then hung up. I got in the car and drove straight home.
For the first 39 years of my life, Camp Lejeune Marine Corps base in North Carolina meant nothing more to me than a long name on my birth certificate. That all changed as I watched retired Marine Master Sergeant Jerry Ensminger’s testimony on CNN. He testified in congress about children of Marines born at Camp Lejeune between January 1968 and December 1985. They were being studied for toxic chemicals in the drinking water aboard Marine Base. Those exposures were to tetrachloroethylene, trichloroethylene, vinyl chlodire and benzene.
My birth month is January, 1968. Instantly I knew and nearly passed out. I knew right there then and there what happened. Everything snapped into focus. Not many people are able to know why they got cancer, but now I could and I wanted answers. I called the congressman who chaired the hearing hoping to find the Master Sergeant I saw testifying on CNN. I spoke to the Congressman’s chief of staff and informed him I was born at Camp Lejeune, and had just been diagnosed with male breast cancer. I left my information with him and requested that it be passed to Jerry Ensminger.
They knew I was born at the base. They knew I was exposed, but no one ever bothered to tell me. Why?
I spoke with Jerry for the first time a few days later. It was just before my first chemo session. He told me he didn’t know anyone else with male breast cancer. I told him I was headed for my first infusion. He told me to get well and to stay in touch.
I believe cancer is the plague of our lifetime. Breast cancer is a scourge brought on by our inability to safely manage our modern lifestyle. It’s something we’re doing to ourselves. In our case, synthetic (man-made) organic chemicals were used to clean everything from uniforms to vehicles aboard the base, and then dumped into the ground. The bases drinking water supply was derived from that same ground. An estimated one million Marines, Navy and their families were exposed to the base’s contaminated drinking water from 1953-1987. Male breast cancer is just one example of the cancers we have seen at Camp Lejeune. It garnered the attention of the media because it was unusual.
To date, Camp Lejeune represents one of the worst drinking water contamination events in this country’s history. The documentary Semper Fi: Always Faithful captures much of our early struggle to uncover the truth and further our fight for justice. In early 2017, the government announced that they created a new presumptive service connection for the Marines and Navy personnel aboard the base. The service connection did not include male breast cancer because there were not enough studies to show whether the chemicals found in our water were linked to the disease of not. The service connections also do not include the dependents nor base employees who were also exposed along with the Marines and Sailors aboard the base. There is still much work to be done.