It’s Not Just a Woman’s Disease
By Dennis Martin
Illustration by Michael Dunn
Mike and Margaret Partain’s 19th wedding anniversary was a day shattered by grief. While most couples celebrate their marriages with a candlelight dinner, Mike and Margaret could have been holding a candlelight vigil instead.
“He fell apart,” says Margaret, when the couple learned on their anniversary that Mike had cancer. “It was a shock.”
But at age 39, Mike’s 2.5-centimeter tumor didn’t grow in his prostate, the most common form of cancer in men. Instead, it grew in his chest. “I think it was more a shock that it was breast cancer,” says Margaret.
While the prognosis is comparable for both men and women who are diagnosed, women are about 100 times more likely to get breast cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. With those lopsided statistics, it isn’t surprising that breast cancer is thought of as a female disease. But it still makes Nancy Nick livid.
“We jump up and down and scream at the TV,” says Nick, a male breast cancer advocate, describing her and her staff’s reaction when male victims are routinely ignored by the media. “What about the men?”
“Every October, Breast Cancer Awareness month, everywhere you look, ‘pink’ is the theme,” says Nick.
So in 1995, she established the John W. Nick Foundation in honor of her father, who died at 58. He didn’t know that men could get breast cancer and was finally diagnosed years after he first visited a doctor with symptoms. After a short remission, he learned the cancer had spread to his bones, and he died in 1991. Nancy Nick wanted to educate others about male breast cancer. She created the pink and blue ribbon – the company’s logo – as a symbol of the message to the public.
“They’re amazing,” says a singer in New York City who ran in the 2007 NYC Half-Marathon wearing the pink and blue ribbon for her late father.
The singer, who wishes to remain anonymous to protect her family’s privacy, compares her dad’s calm resolve in battling the disease with that of a “quiet soldier.”
“If it were me, I don’t know how much I would have kept fighting,” she says, describing the pain her father experienced as horrific.
“The radiation was so intense, it literally degenerated his vertebrae,” she recalls, and that necessitated surgery to have pins placed in her father’s back. He also developed a “massive burn” on one of his hands as a side effect of chemotherapy.
“His hand was burning. The chemo started eating away the interior of that hand,” she says. The skin graft on his hand had to be dressed every day.
At 45, four days after her birthday, the “quiet soldier” died.
“He died so young,” she says.
Like breast cancer in women, the exact causes of male breast cancer are unknown. Men with higher levels of estrogen, those who test positive for the BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 breast mutation genes and those with a family history of breast cancer may be at higher risk.
Margaret Partain now believes her husband Mike’s diagnosis was caused by environmental factors.
“At first I was very skeptical,” says the mother of four, who inadvertently discovered the lump in her husband’s right breast after an embrace.
But after learning through the media that chemicals in the water supply at Camp Lejeune – a military base in North Carolina where Mike was born and raised – was the cause of other men developing male breast cancer, as well as other cancers and birth defects, Margaret is now convinced.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a unit of the federal Department of Health and Human Services, is continuing to investigate water contamination at Camp Lejeune, and more than 1,000 former residents have filed claims for health problems.
Looking forward, Margaret hopes for more wedding anniversaries with Mike, who is now in remission. “I put a lot of faith in God that this will be something that he would overcome,” she says.
For information about male breast cancer, visit http://www.johnwnickfoundation.org/index.html.