The 13 breast cancer survivors gathered last month at a Boston hotel for a calendar photo shoot that will raise money to research the causes of the disease.
They shared stories of recovery. They talked about surgeries and hospital stays and their hopes for the future. In their camaraderie, some may have momentarily forgotten the improbable and puzzling novelty of their gathering.
They are all men. Most served in the Marine Corps. All have ties to Camp Lejeune, a sprawling Marine base on the North Carolina seaboard.
"It's an attention grabber," said Peter Devereaux, 48, of North Andover, Mass., who was diagnosed two years ago with breast cancer.
The men, including three from the Tampa Bay area, are working with the Art beCAUSE Breast Cancer Foundation in Boston, a nonprofit that raises money for breast cancer research, to release a calendar by Oct. 1. They want to increase awareness of what some believe may be the largest male breast cancer cluster ever identified.
At least 64 men diagnosed with breast cancer have ties to Camp Lejeune, according to research by Mike Partain, a Tallahassee insurance investigator who is a member of the group.
Lejeune was the site of one of the worst public drinking water contaminations in the nation's history. Waters there were tainted with dangerous chemicals for 30 years, ending in 1987, say federal scientists.
Up to a million people may have been exposed to the pollution, including nearly 14,000 Floridians who have signed a Marine Corps health registry — the most of any state except North Carolina.
Partain, 42, who was born at Camp Lejeune in 1968 and diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007, said he is convinced Lejeune's polluted water is the source of this cancer cluster.
Partain posed for the calendar shirtless to emphasize the improbable notion that a man can be struck by the disease. As he was photographed, Partain held a chilling photo taken shortly after his birth. It shows his mother holding her baby at a Camp Lejeune hospital — a glass of water on the table beside them.
"I want people to pick up the calendar and wonder why Marines are getting breast cancer," Partain said. " I want them to wonder what in the hell happened at Camp Lejeune."
The Marine Corps maintains that no science has proved a link between polluted water and disease. Federal scientists are studying Lejeune, where everything from fuel to industrial solvents once fouled waters.
The calendar idea came about after Devereaux, the Massachusetts man, posed last year for a 2010 calendar that otherwise featured only female breast cancer survivors. He said he told Art beCAUSE officials that he wouldn't mind doing so again — in an all-male calendar.
"This may help other guys who don't feel comfortable," said Devereaux, who served at Lejeune from 1980 to 1982. "We all have male breast cancer, and it's a female disease. Guys can't get past that."
Male breast cancer is exceedingly rare. From 1975 to 2006, just 1.09 men out of every 100,000 are diagnosed with breast cancer, according to federal statistics.
Photographer David Fox, who shot the calendar and who lost his own wife to breast cancer, said he was startled when he learned about the cancer cluster tied to Camp Lejeune.
"The stories of these men are just incredible," Fox said. "The way we approached this project is that the photos are about the beauty of the person and the ugliness of the disease. Even though the disease has mutilated the body in some way, it hasn't broken the spirit of that person."
Ellie Anbinger, executive director of the foundation, said her nonprofit hopes to raise $50,000 through calendar sales — each will cost $20 and will be sold on the foundation's Web site and individually by the men photographed — to fund research about the Lejeune cancer cluster.
"We want to know what would trigger so many guys to get breast cancer," Anbinger said.
Fourteen men will appear in the calendar — two for the months of November and December 2010, the rest in 2011. Of the 14 men, one is not a breast cancer survivor but had a daughter who died of leukemia after exposure to base water.
The calendar will be titled "Men, Breast Cancer, the Environment: A Photographic Journey."
Joe Moser, 71, of Riverview, who was stationed as a Marine at Camp Lejeune from 1957 to 1960, also posed for the calendar. He said most people he meets can't get over the surprise that so many men from Lejeune are breast cancer survivors.
"I hope it alerts people to what is happening," said Moser, diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008. "Something has to be done about this. We Marines are united forever by this."
Partain, the Florida man who first identified the cancer cluster, said he already has plans for the first calendar he gets his hands on.
"I intend to send the commandant of the Marine Corps his very own copy."
William R. Levesque can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3432.