Mike Partain is a walking, breathing anomaly.
After he was diagnosed with breast cancer in April 2007, the Tallahassee resident learned just how rare the cancer is in men — fewer than 2,000 new cases each year.
Men who get it are often over 70 with a family history of breast cancer. Partain, then 39 with no family history, felt like the unluckiest guy in the world.
Then Partain got a call from a second anomaly like himself, a breast cancer survivor in his 40s with stunning news.
Both men lived at Camp Lejeune, N.C., during what some scientists call the worst public drinking-water contamination in the nation's history.
So began Partain's single-minded quest to find other men with breast cancer and ties to the Marine Corps base. His success has startled scientists: He has found nine others.
And the St. Petersburg Times located a Lejeune breast cancer survivor not on Partain's list.
Only one of the men was over 70 when diagnosed.
Scientists studying Camp Lejeune water tainted with carcinogens for 30 years ending in 1987 — water consumed by up to 1 million people — say it is extraordinarily difficult to link pollutants to an illness.
But Partain, working alone and without government help, has grabbed their attention.
"This needs to be looked into very seriously," said Dr. Devra Davis, an epidemiologist preparing a case report on the men. "We all owe a debt to Mike and others who have stepped forward."
Partain is sure many more cases await discovery.
Two upcoming federal studies will look at the incidence of all disease among base residents. Potentially, there are billions of dollars in health claims by 1,500 people who say the water sickened them that may ride on the results.
So far, nearly 10,000 Floridians with Camp Lejeune ties have signed up for a health survey, the highest total for any state except North Carolina.
Partain, an insurance claims investigator born at Lejeune in 1968, sees his work as proof the water caused illness.
"I'm missing half my chest," Partain, 41, said of the mastectomy that removed his right breast. "That didn't happen by a fluke of God. I was poisoned."
Partain, son of a Marine officer, was conceived at Camp Lejeune and lived there for several months after his birth.
In early 2007, Partain's wife felt a lump on his right breast as they hugged before bed.
At first, Partain dismissed it. Men didn't get breast cancer. He told his wife to give it two weeks, and if the lump didn't go away, he would visit a doctor.
It didn't disappear.
Partain's doctor ordered a mammogram, an ultrasound and finally a biopsy as Partain got progressively more nervous.
On April 25, 2007, the doctor told him he had breast cancer and scheduled a mastectomy.
"I wanted to argue with the doctor," Partain said. "How in the hell did I get breast cancer? Where did that come from?"
A man has a 1-in-1,000 lifetime chance of getting the disease. About 1,900 cases are forecast for 2009, says the American Cancer Society. By comparison, nearly 200,000 women will be diagnosed with the disease.
Like many cancers, the causes are not well understood, said Dr. John Kiluk, a breast cancer specialist at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa.
"And that's one of the frustrations" about the disease, he said.
Some scientists, however, have noted suspicious increases in male breast cancer at other sites polluted with the same compounds found at Camp Lejeune.
One is a Woburn, Mass., toxic site made famous in the book and movie, A Civil Action.
Partain said he was in the dark about the cause of his cancer until a frantic call from his father in June 2007 telling him to turn on CNN.
Partain saw a report about Camp Lejeune's water, his first inkling of the problem.
For decades, drinking water at Camp Lejeune was contaminated with cancer-causing industrial solvents dumped by the Marines and a dry-cleaning business, investigators say.
To Partain, it was a revelation.
He began making use of the bully pulpit his rare cancer gave him. A man with breast cancer is news. Reporters called.
On Sept. 16, 2007, after a story in a Lakeland paper, Alabama minister Kris Thomas called Partain.
Thomas said he was diagnosed with breast cancer in his 40s despite no family history for the disease. His father was a Marine, and Thomas' family lived in the same neighborhood as Partain's.
For a few months, they lived there at the same time.
"It's like trying to decipher a murder," said Thomas, 50. "What do we have in common? It was Camp Lejeune. What are the odds of that?"
It was a watershed moment for Partain.
"I knew I wasn't alone," he said. "And that meant everything in the world. I couldn't be explained away as a fluke."
Then a Tallahassee newspaper wrote another story. Bill Smith, who teaches marketing at Florida State University, saw it.
Smith was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1994, when he was about 60. He was a Marine at Lejeune in the late 1950s.
Partain found his third anomaly at his church after he gave a talk about the environment, mentioning Camp Lejeune. A woman approached him crying. Her stepfather died of breast cancer. He was a Lejeune Marine.
Partain didn't stop there.
He posted notes on cancer bulletin boards on the Internet. He did Web searches. He joined a breast cancer support group — its only male member.
He found case after case. His last discovery came in December 2008. Scientists took notice.
"It perked our interest," said Frank Bove, a federal epidemiologist studying Camp Lejeune water.
But Bove said it may be impossible for science to prove the water caused the breast cancers.
Still, a good circumstantial case might eventually move the Marines to provide compensation to those who are ill.
The stakes are enormous.
The Marines Corps, accused of keeping tainted wells open and failing to warn anyone of the danger, declined to comment on Partain's work.
Partain won't stop looking.
"If it hadn't been for my wife, I'd be dead right now. That's wrong. The Marines knew I was exposed and didn't tell me. That's wrong. There are people out there dead or dying who still don't know. That's wrong."
William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 269-5306.