Scientists studying drinking water contamination at Camp Lejeune were startled when 11 men with breast cancer and ties to the North Carolina base were identified over the last two years.
Six more have been found in one week.
Five additional men with breast cancer and a sixth who had a double mastectomy after doctors found precancerous tumors contacted the St. Petersburg Times last week after reading a story about the 11 men with the rare disease.
"This male breast cancer cluster is a smoking gun," breast cancer survivor Mike Partain said on Friday. "You just can't ignore it. You don't need science to tell you something is wrong. It's common sense. It begs to be studied."
Partain, 41, of Tallahassee, was born at the Marine Corps base and diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007. He has worked for two years to find other men with breast cancer who lived at Camp Lejeune.
He found the first nine men before the Times profiled his search in a story on June 28, a story that noted the newspaper had found another man not on Partain's list.
In the days after that story, other male breast cancer survivors called or e-mailed the Times.
Scientists studying what some call the worst public-drinking water contamination in the nation's history said the numbers are unsettling.
"My gut tells me this is unusual and needs to be looked into," said Richard Clapp, a Boston University epidemiologist who has studied Camp Lejeune water. "I'm sure there are still more out there in other states."
Camp Lejeune's drinking water was contaminated for 30 years ending in 1987 with high levels of industrial degreasers called trichloroethylene (TCE) and tetrachloroethylene (PCE). Clapp said both have been linked to other suspicious male breast cancer clusters elsewhere.
The chemicals were dumped there by the Marine Corps and a private dry-cleaning business, according to investigators.
Congress, which has dubbed ill Marines "poisoned patriots," ordered the Marines last year to notify those who might have been exposed. Some estimates put the number at up to 1 million people.
Many Marines, however, are still unaware.
One who didn't have a clue about the contamination is South Florida resident Jim Morris.
Morris said he was astonished when he was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000 at the age of 54. His family had no history of breast cancer. He didn't realize men could get the disease.
Male breast cancer is exceedingly rare. Just 1,900 men are expected to be diagnosed with breast cancer this year compared with nearly 200,000 women, the American Cancer Society says.
A man has a 1-in-1,000 lifetime chance of getting the disease.
Men who get it are often over 70, though it is rare even in older males. Of the 17 men identified by Partain and the Times, just three are over 70 — the youngest was Partain at 39 — and many have no family history of breast cancer, male or female, according to interviews.
Morris said his sister lives in Pasco County and saw the Times article about Partain. She immediately called her brother.
"It was almost a relief to find out my cancer actually came from somewhere," said Morris, who has worked as a surveyor. "I'm not just some idiot who got breast cancer for no reason. I never expected to find out. It was going to be one of those lifetime puzzles you never figure out."
Scientists, however, are careful to say that it is extremely difficult to prove a link between pollution and a disease. The Marine Corps declined to comment for this story.
Two federal studies are expected to be completed in coming years that will look at the incidence of all disease among those who lived at Camp Lejeune. The stakes are enormous, with potentially billions of dollars in health claims by more than 1,500 people who say the water made them ill.
University of Pittsburgh Cancer Center epidemiologist Devra Davis also is preparing a case report on the breast cancer cluster.
Partain is among those who believe Camp Lejeune's water may have caused a variety of cancers and other ailments. A growing community of Camp Lejeune veterans, including many who say they are ill, have connected on the Web, many at a popular Internet site called tftptf.com.
More than 10,000 Floridians with Lejeune ties have signed up for a health survey, the most from any state except North Carolina.
Joe Moser, 69, of Riverview was diagnosed with breast and thyroid cancer in February 2008. He was stationed at Camp Lejeune from 1957 to 1960. He said he didn't know about water problems at the base and was stunned to read about the breast cancer link.
"This is too weird," Moser said. "All these men with breast cancer? Come on. There's got to be a lot more of us out there. God, so many of the guys I served with were from Trenton or Philadelphia, all over the place. Who knows if they're sick, too."
William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 269-5306.