From Marines study, breast cancer clues

Exposed to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune, Marines diagnosed with breast cancer could advance our understanding of the disease's environmental causes.

Last week, Congress passed a bill to provide health benefits to Marines and their families who lived at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, where they were exposed to contaminated drinking water.

While the bill provides relief to the victims' families, there's a subset of past Lejeune residents who could turn out to be helpful to science -- the 77 Marines and their family members who came down with the extremely rare malady: male breast cancer.

While the words "breast cancer" normally conjure up an image of pink ribbons and women who have been afflicted by the disease, men do occasionally develop breast cancer. The ratio is about one man for every 100 women with the disease.

Read on to find out how so many Marines and men who had lived at Camp Lejeune came down with it, and how they can help science learn more about the environmental causes of breast cancer.

Marines with ... breast cancer?

Mike Partain, who was born at Camp Lejeune while his Marine father was stationed there, found out five years ago that he had breast cancer. The typical age for men who are diagnosed with breast cancer is 70. He was 39.

He ended up having a full mastectomy and eight rounds of chemo. "I kept thinking, 'What did I do to win this lottery?'" Partain told Mother Jones. "I never drank or smoked. I liked backpacking and Boy Scouts. There is no history of breast cancer in my family."

Shortly after, his family found out from a news report that there had been toxic chemicals in Lejeune's drinking water and that that may have caused some case of leukemia and birth defects. Partain decided that if the camp's drinking water was the cause of his disease, it might have caused breast cancer in other men who lived at the base, so he decided to go public with his diagnosis. Indeed, shortly after appearing on a local news show, he got a call from an Alabama preacher who had been raised at the camp and also had breast cancer.

Within a year, he had found 20 men with breast cancer who had lived on or served on the base. Now, his tally is up to 77.

Contamination at Camp Lejeune

Camp Lejeune is a coastal base, built on a series of interconnected wetlands and aquifers, that spans 244 square miles and is home to 137,000 Marines, their families and civilian employees.

For three decades beginning in the 1950s, Mother Jones reports, "An estimated 750,000 people regularly drank [Camp Lejeune's contaminated] water, bathed and swam in it, and inhaled its vapors." At one site, where tanks and jeeps were fixed, storage tanks leaked more than a million gallons of gasoline, creating an underground plume that was almost as large as the National Mall. One well, No. 602, went right through it to provide water to thousands of people every day. In 1984, that well was measured as having 76 times the federal limit for the carcinogenic chemical benzene. In 1989, several areas on the grounds were named Superfund sites.

So far, worrisome chemicals identified in the water supply have included

  • TCE, which was banned by the FDA in 1977 but is still used as an industrial degreaser
  • PCE, which is still used by dry cleaners
  • benzene, which is still added to gasoline

Mother Jones says that Camp Lejeune had "the most contaminated public drinking water supply ever discovered in the United States." And now, it also seems to have the biggest cluster of male breast cancer cases ever identified.

Finding an environmental cause

Except in very unusual circumstances, it's pretty much near impossible to prove that an environmental factor caused cancer. When cancer clusters do occur, they are often not big enough to be deemed statistically significant, except in extreme cases such as Love Canal or Woburn, Massachusetts, which was the scene for the book and movie A Civil Action.

And then, even in cases where the numbers are statistically significant, it's still hard to confidently finger the environmental factors as the cause of a disease in the same way possible in the lab. While more than 200 chemicals have been associated with mammary tumors in animals and people, you can't force feed human subjects the offending chemical to see what happens.

However, because Lejeune is so massive and the contamination lasted so long, it is almost like a lab environment. As Mother Jones reports:

hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children [were] exposed to contaminated water. What's more, the military has precise records of who lived where and for how long. In some cases, it may even be possible to pinpoint, down to the trimester, when fetuses were exposed—knowledge useful for tracking developmental defects. Indeed, it was a survey indicating low birth weights that first caught the attention of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), which is now conducting massive health studies at Lejeune.

It's still not certain whether Partain's group is large enough to draw that clean line between environmental factors and the disease, but they could certainly dramatically advance our knowledge of the disease, which kills 40,000 American women annually. Mother Jones says, "If the Lejeune data is good enough to prove a link between industrial chemicals and breast cancer in the general population, it will be a first."

The fact that these breast cancers occurred in men could help isolate the environmental causes. While it's hard to pinpoint such causes of disease, sorting them out in women is especially challenging. Men just have mammary glands, which Mother Jones calls "a vestige of our evolutionary past." In all embryos, structures called "milk lines" develop in the body, but in men, their genes turn them off. Women, on the other hand, have other confounding factors: history with menstruation, reproduction, breastfeeding and hormone replacement therapy.

To view a slide show of the Marines and other Lejeune residents with male breast cancer, click here.

Related on SmartPlanet:

via: Mother Jones

photo: Harald Hansen/Wikimedia Commons

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