Mike is a survivor, but with a different twist. He is trying to find any residents of Camp LeJeune that lived on base between 1957 and 1987 -- a time when the water supply was contaminated with carcinogenic chemicals. People that were exposed to these chemicals have an increased risk for various cancers and other diseases, and not all of them have been notified by the U.S. Marine Corps. Mike is the lead community member of The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten, and speaks to various groups about environmental contamination and its impact on health.
Mike is a former teacher who now works for State Farm Insurance. He is married to a woman named Margaret, and they have four children. He is very active on behalf of those who have been affected by toxic water at the Marine base Camp LeJeune between 1957 and 1987.
Mike's Male Breast Cancer Diagnosis
Age at diagnosis: 39
Diagnosed: April 25, 2007
Tumor: 2.5 cm, Grade 3
Genetic test results: No BRCA1 or BRCA2
Mike had no family history, male or female, and no use of alcohol or tobacco. Unknown to Mike at diagnosis, his primary risk factor was that he and his mother were exposed to Tetrachloroethylene and other volatile organic compounds while his mother was pregnant with him at Camp LeJeune Marine Corps base during 1968. During that time, the base’s potable water system was contaminated. The contamination lasted until 1987 and has affected an estimated 800,000 to 1 million former Marines and their families.
Background and Discovery of Mike's Breast Lump
In April 2007, not long before their 18th wedding anniversary, Mike Partain's wife gave him a goodnight hug. She felt a lump as her hand went across his chest. Mike thought it could be a cyst, but after two weeks, it did not go away. Margaret insisted that he consult with his doctor. Dr. Perry did not like the lump located just over Mike’s right nipple and requested a mammogram or as Mike likes to call it, a Man-O-gram. On Friday, April 20th, Mike went in for a mammogram and was then held for an ultrasound. The radiologist did not like what she saw and advised Mike that he should have a biopsy of the area to see what was really going on. Mike's radiologist wrote in her report to the surgeon that the presence of prominent lymph nodes is especially concerning in cases of male breast cancer. The following Monday, Mike met with Dr. Snyder and was told that it could be breast cancer. A needle biopsy was performed and Dr. Snyder scheduled the follow up appointment two days later, on April 25, 2007. Mike and Margaret met with Dr. Snyder on the day of their 18th anniversary. On that day, Mike was informed that he indeed had breast cancer and that it was serious. The doctor scheduled Mike for a right breast mastectomy on May 4, 2007.
Q: How did treatment go for you?
A: Chemo was rough for me. I have never done any type of drugs nor smoked in my life. 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 would get to feeling somewhat better, enough to walk around and go to work. This would last two weeks. Then on the third week, I would be geared up for the next treatment. I would get all anxious and the night before I could not sleep. I was terrified. However, once the treatment session was over, I focused on trying to feel better. Margaret said that for the first 3 days I was white as a sheet. I could see the fear in her eyes. It was hell on the both of us.
Q: Did you feel well treated by health care professionals?
A: I hated my doctor. He was arrogant and to be honest, I felt as if he had a God Complex: He knew the answers and you had better follow his ordained advice. I attempted to do the treatments at a research hospital in Gainesville but they did not like the distance I would have to travel. To tell you the truth, my chemo nurse made all the difference. She was a leukemia survivor and somehow it was a source of comfort for me to know that someone who had had it much rougher than me was looking out for me. I stayed with my oncologist for this reason and as soon as the chemo was over, I found another doctor. He is much better.
Mike Partain comes from a family of tough military men. One night, his wife Margaret hugged him and found a lump in his breast - that hug, he says, saved his life. Mike was born at Camp LeJeuene and affected by contaminated water on base. He tells his story of surviving breast cancer and learning how the chemical in the water affected him and many others.
Q: You started life with a skin rash and grew up with other odd health problems, how did those affect you?
A: I was born with the rash. My mother said I was a tiny baby and the nurses all commented on that when I was born. All through childhood, I was plagued with ear, nose, and throat problems. I was constantly in and out of the doctor's office. I had speech problems, my mother thought it was because of her and quit speaking French, her native tongue, to me when I was very young. At the age of 9 to 10 I had, my tonsils and adenoids removed. The doctor said they were rotted and practically fell off during surgery. My next round of issues was at 13 when I developed epididymitis; I later developed a cyst in that area. Then there was high blood pressure at 18. In my twenties, my family doctor told me to stop drinking alcohol. That was odd, because I do not drink.
Q: How did your mother take this news? Was her health, or the health of other family members, also affected?
A: My mother was devastated when she realized that something she did 40 years ago caused my cancer. The pain in her eyes was so poignant that it seemed as if it had happened just yesterday. I had to reassure her that it was not her fault. No mother should ever have to feel that way. There are thousands of mothers from Camp LeJeune who for the longest time blamed themselves for their miscarriage, child's cancer, or death. Now they can at least know what really happened. What happened strikes a primordial fear in women and young parents -- that something your mom did when she was pregnant with you, something you drank or ate may affect you in the future and be passed down through your family. Just about every expectant mother’s nightmare is that they would do something to harm their unborn child. My mother and father have both had health issues. My father was also exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam. He has problems with blood pressure and diabetes. My mother developed thyroid problems while at Camp LeJeune, then gall bladder 7 years later, diverticulitis and now diabetes. She has developed neurological issues in her back and feet. All of these things are common problems found at Camp LeJeune and exist nowhere else in her family. My sister was born 2 years after me. She was never exposed nor did she live on the base. She is in good health with no major issues.
Q: When your wife noticed your breast lump, how did both of you react?
A: When the doctor told me it was breast cancer, I was thunderstruck. It was right out of the blue. Cancer is rare in both sides of my family. I was healthy and none of the risk factors fit. All I could think was 'I am going to die and my children will have to grow up without a father.' What about Margaret?
Q: What went through your mind, when you received your diagnosis? How did you handle it?
A: I went numb. It was as if I was floating above myself seeing and understanding everything but unable to do anything. My first concern was my family. It kept me up at night. The nightmares were horrible. I had to call back and ask the doctor for pills to help me sleep. Everyone I have ever known with cancer died. Two years prior to my diagnosis, I had lost a friend to colon cancer. He died during chemo. He was 41. Like me, his diagnosis was out of the blue. That was my base line and it created a mountain of fear in my mind.
Q: The Partains have been in the military for three generations. They sound like a tough lot of men – how did they respond to your diagnosis of male breast cancer?
A: My family served this country for three consecutive generations. My grandfather enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1939 and served in WWII and Korea. He retired in 1961 with the rank of Major. My father was appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy and served his commission in the Marine Corps. He is a veteran of Vietnam. I served in the Navy but my enlistment was cut short by my skin rash and I was discharged for medical reasons. My grandfather passed away in 1989. My father was shocked but supportive. I was taught to face adversity head on, evaluate the alternatives, and then make your decision. There is an unwritten rule not to show fear or emotion. Fear -- while real -- had to be overcome in order to survive. After all, "fear is the mind killer" as one of my father’s favorite books (The Dune Chronicles) reads.
Q: How did you get through the experience of treatment and recovery? Did you have a support network?
A: My wife (Margaret) was my biggest supporter. I could not have done it without her. She is my rock. I also joined a breast cancer support group called Bosom Buddies. They were so supportive and kind of adopted me. I was the only man in the group. I called ahead before I went so they would not think I was some freak trying to pick someone up or something.
Mike Partain, a breast cancer survivor, was conceived and born at Camp LeJeuene Marine Corps Base. After his diagnosis, he learned the source of his cancer and early childhood health problems - toxic water on the military base.
Q: Tell me how you learned about the Camp LeJeune water contamination, and how it has changed your life.
A: A month after my surgery I was heading home from a follow-up visit with my surgeon. My father called me on my cell. There was an unsettling tone in his voice that shook me. I thought something terrible had happened to my mother or sister. You just do not hear panic in my father’s voice. He asked me if I was at home and then told me to go straight home and turn on CNN. When I turned on the TV, the story was about a Congressional hearing into the water contamination at Camp LeJeune. A man (Jerry Ensminger) was testifying about his daughter and how she had died from leukemia because of her in-utero exposure to the contaminated water on the base. The report said the base’s water supply was contaminated from 1957 through 1987 and that ATSDR (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry) was studying the children conceived and or born on the base between 1968 and 1985. I was born at Camp LeJeune Naval Hospital on January 30, 1968. As I watched the report, my blood turned cold and I started shaking. It was a gestalt moment and I realized what, how and why I was sick. I was one of the kids… the whole time I never knew. I immediately called Rep. Stupak’s office in Michigan (sponsor for the hearing) and asked to be put in touch with Mr. Ensminger. He called me three days later, ironically the same day my chemo began. Somehow, it made me feel better to speak to him. There was a connection there because of his daughter. Because of him and her, I knew why. He informed me of their website and I began to voraciously read everything on the site that I could get my hands on.
Q: How did you react when you learned more about the Camp LeJeuene water contamination?
A: I was disturbed to learn that the Marine Corps had known about this contamination since 1980. They allowed it to continue until 1985 and then reactivated a contaminated well because of water shortages until 1987. While all this happened after I was born, it did not sit well with me to know that the organization my family loyally served could do such a thing. Then Jerry Ensminger told me about a set of naval instructions regulating potable water at Marine and Navy installations. It dated back to 1963 and, if followed, would have prevented most of the human exposures aboard the base… including me. Jerry said in the hearings that what has happened has filled him with a terrible resolve. I share the same sentiments. In 2004, I had symptoms of my cancer. I went to my doctor and they missed it. The only test to detect breast cancer is manual and a mammogram. Neither my doctor nor I had any reason to suspect breast cancer and they were looking in the wrong place. My government knew I was exposed and did not tell me. I was even part of the study and they did not tell me. In fact it literally took an act of Congress last year to force the Marine Corps to notify some (not all) of the people exposed. They drug it out over the past year and are still in the process of notifying people. Semper Fi, I think not! My wife was the one who saved my life, not the Marine Corps.
Q: How many other men at Camp LeJeune have been diagnosed with breast cancer? Have women with no other risk factors also been diagnosed with breast cancer?
A: Over the past year, I have found seven other men besides myself who were at the base and now have male breast cancer. Two other men have had benign tumors. I also understand that Montel Williams underwent a double mastectomy for a tumor growth in one of his breasts while a Marine and before he entered the U.S. Naval Academy. The tumor later turned out to be benign. Multiple Sclerosis is also associated with Camp LeJeune. I am not sure, but it is more than likely that Montel also spent time at Camp LeJeune. There are also several women who were at the base and later developed breast cancer as well.
Q: What is the military doing about the water problem? What would you like to see happen?
A: As I mentioned before, the Marine Corps has been less than forthright in this matter. They were forced to tell the families by Congress, they have lied and provided incorrect data to the scientists trying to study the problem and continue to publicly blame or allow the media to blame all of the contamination on ABC Dry Cleaners. The recent interview with Dan Rather is a case in point. This is a rather complicated matter. Please see this blog on betrayal of trust and honor for more info. I also created a timeline, which is referenced to Marine Corps Documents. I am currently assembling the second half of the timeline. One of the challenges we face on this issue is educating people -- this is more than just Camp LeJeune. PCE and TCE are present at many military, civilian, and industrial installations.
Q: Any other information – other things you want to express?
A: PCE (Perchloroethylene) and TCE (Trichloroethylene) are dangerous chemicals and contaminate an estimated 80% of the ground water across the country. Dry cleaners, heavy industry, and military installations/contractors are the major sources for environmental releases of these toxic compounds. Science has been crippled by political interference from polluters and special interests, at the cost of our health. Male breast cancer is just a warning that we are poisoning ourselves slowly but surely and that the effects are generational. If men are getting breast cancer from exposure to these compounds, think of what they are doing to women, whose bodies are more sensitive to their environment and changes in the environment than men are.