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The Camp Lejeune Marines' Breast Cancer Epidemic

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Camp Lejeune marinesIt all started with Mike Partain, a.k.a. Number One. A barrel-chested father of four with a goatee and a predilection for aviator sunglasses, Partain was born at Camp Lejeune, the North Carolina base where his father, a first lieutenant in the US Marine Corps, was stationed in the late 1960s. Now he lives in Tallahassee, Florida, where he makes his living as an insurance claims adjuster.

Five years ago Partain's wife noticed a grape-size bump next to his right nipple. "I thought it was from an ingrown hair or something. I blew it off," he recalls. But a couple of weeks later he decided to get it checked out.

When his doctor ordered a mammogram, he remembers, "a chill went down my spine." Then came a sonogram: Partain watched in amazement as an image emerged on the screen looking like one of the globular star clusters he knew as an astronomy hobbyist. "I never even knew men could get breast cancer!" he says.

Indeed, it's rare. For every 100 women with the disease, just 1 man is diagnosed—and typically around age 70. Partain was only 39. He would undergo a full mastectomy and eight rounds of chemo, leading to gonadal failure—an inability to produce testosterone. "I kept thinking, 'What did I do to win this lottery?'" Partain told me. "I never drank or smoked. I liked backpacking and Boy Scouts. There is no history of breast cancer in my family."

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