WASHINGTON — As National Breast Cancer Awareness Month draws to a close this weekend, a cluster of men who once lived on a poisoned military base have this message for the public: The disease doesn't just go away.
Thirteen men who suffer from breast cancer posed for a calendar to raise awareness of their situation. All served or lived on the Camp Lejeune, N.C., Marine base. All think their cancer can be traced to the decades in which toxic drinking water poured from the base's faucets, carrying poisons such as benzene, trichloroethylene and tetrachloroethylene.
The 2011 calendar, "Men, Breast Cancer and the Environment," became available online early this month; so far about 350 have been sold.
The men gathered at a Boston hotel this summer for a unique photo shoot. Many had spoken with one another only on the phone, or through e-mail chats. Few had ever laid eyes on another male breast cancer patient.
In August, they stood among their own.
They exchanged stories and handshakes. Many of the Marine veterans sported graying buzz cuts. Some had had mastectomies.
"When we took our shirts off, we were all checking each other out," said Peter Devereaux of North Andover, Mass.
"You're basically so similar," Devereaux said. "You're all men. You've got what's considered a woman's disease. You're all Marines or sons of Marines. It's incredible."
They posed, shirtless or clothed, for photographer David Fox, whose first wife died of breast cancer.
Fox sat down with each man, chatted a few minutes about their stories. He said he tried to capture the beauty of the person, and the ugliness of the disease.
Male breast cancer makes up less than 1 percent of all breast cancer cases, and mostly affects men in their 60s, according to the National Cancer Institute. The Camp Lejeune calendar will be used for a seed grant to study potential links between male breast cancer and the base's water.
The project was produced by Art BeCAUSE, a Framingham, Mass., nonprofit agency. The organization, www.artbecause.org, raises money for scientific seed grants to fund research into potential environmental causes of breast cancer.
"They're different because they're guys, and they're not sure why they got breast cancer," said Ellie Anbinder, a co-founder and executive director of the organization and a breast cancer survivor. "It probably happened because of the water."
One of the men in the calendar, Mike Partain of Tallahassee, Fla., the son of a Marine, was born at Camp Lejeune.
After Partain was diagnosed three years ago, he began hearing of other male breast cancer patients who'd lived at or been conceived at Lejeune. To date, there are an estimated 65.
Partain, 42, who's been an advocate for other victims of the water contamination, was among the men who posed for the calendar. In the calendar Partain stands shirtless, holding a photograph of his mother, who mixed Partain's baby formula with water from Lejeune taps.
Devereaux posed for the 2010 calendar a year ago; then he was the only man in a year full of women. This year, he suggested rounding up Partain and a bunch of his fellow Marines for a guys-only project.
The stories were hopeful, but tinged with sadness.
"You don't want to miss a minute, because you're not going to have this opportunity to have all the men together in the same room (again)," Devereaux said of the August photo shoot. "They were so courageous, so proud."
Devereaux, 48, just learned this summer he'll receive veterans' health benefits for his disease after fighting for a year to get the federal government to link his cancer to the poisonous water.
He, like many of the men, for years had no idea that his exposure at Lejeune might mean he should be tested for cancer.
His illness is incurable. He has a wife and teenage daughter.
"I told everyone, 'Listen, we got to sell a bunch of these,'" Devereaux said. "Guys don't even know they can get breast cancer. Let's start getting them diagnosed early."
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