When John Mormando was told about his breast cancer diagnosis in March, he confided in friends about his shock. After all, less than 1 percent of cases develop in men.
He didn’t expect to hear that his colleagues from the New York Mercantile Exchange, where they returned to work shortly after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, also were suffering from cancer.
“We had no idea that years later we would be affected by what was going on down there, but we went to work every day,” said Mr. Mormando, 51.
Diseases and other physical maladies can take years, sometimes decades, to develop with noticeable symptoms, meaning 9/11 survivors and first responders such as Mr. Mormando face uncertainty about their health.
The World Trade Center Health Program was set up in 2011 to provide complete health care coverage for responders and survivors of the attacks in New York City, Pennsylvania and the Pentagon.
In April, researchers with the program published a study of 14,474 New York Fire Department employees exposed to the World Trade Center site who were cancer-free on Jan. 1, 2012. Researchers estimated that nearly 3,000 cancer cases could develop in the participants by 2031.
Mr. Mormando initially didn’t link his diagnosis to the tragedy 17 years ago. A friend of his had registered with the World Trade Center Health Program and the Victim Compensation Fund through the law firm Barasch & McGarry and suggested that Mr. Mormando do the same. “I had no idea about it,” he said.
Michael Barasch, a partner at Barasch & McGarry, represents 20 men with breast cancer — a mix of first responders, construction workers, office staff and at least one student.
About 1 in 1,000 men will ever develop breast cancer.
“Most people are shocked that there’s this presumption linking male breast cancer, or frankly any of the 68 cancers,” to the attacks, Mr. Barasch said.
The health program covers variants of 13 types of cancer, including all childhood cancers and 14 cases considered to be rare, including male breast cancer. It has about 72,000 responders and almost 17,000 survivors enrolled.
Mr. Barasch said his firm represents about 11,000 people who were affected by the attacks. Half of them have cancer.
“If they’ve moved away from New York City, if they’re now retired living in North Carolina or Florida, why in the world would they connect the dots to the cancer that was diagnosed in 2008, 2011, 2015?” the lawyer said. “Most people don’t connect the dots.”
Jeff Flynn, 65, is a client of Mr. Barasch’s. His breast cancer was diagnosed in 2011. He was in Manhattan on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, and saw the two planes fly into the World Trade Center towers.
“Although we didn’t die in the trade center that day, there are still many of us that are passing away from disease due to the toxins that we breathed downtown,” he said.
An account manager for a tech company contracting with Goldman Sachs, Mr. Flynn went back to work a week after the attacks and traveled all over downtown for a few months.
He discovered a lump on his chest nearly a decade later but was reluctant to have a doctor check it. After his wife noticed one of his nipples had become inverted, he went in for a checkup.
“I never even heard of male breast cancer,” he said. “Three days later, I got the dreaded phone call that, ‘Yes, you have breast cancer.’”
He soon started registering with the World Trade Center Health Program and the Victim Compensation Fund. “You have to see many doctors, and you have to have proof that you were actually in the area. They want a number of witnesses that can place you down there. It’s not been a simple task to get this done,” Mr. Flynn said.
He still encourages anyone who was in the area during or in the aftermath of the attacks to register.
Mr. Mormando has just started his registration and said the process has been uncomplicated so far. He was at home the morning of Sept. 11 taking care of his children while his wife was on a business trip. Within a week, he was back at work as a commodities broker at the New York Mercantile Exchange. He stayed for six more years.
“We went to work every day. There were buildings burning and rubble all around us, and we just went,” he said. “They gave us little surgeon masks; basically, that was our protection from what was going on around us.”
The urgency to return to normal was viewed as a national and patriotic mission. On Wall Street, New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani called the workers heroes, and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman reassured the public that the air was safe to breathe.
“[They were] all basically telling us that the air quality was fine, we are heroes, we’re not giving into terrorists by going back to work,” Mr. Mormando said. “They basically clapped for us, and we ate it up — true Americans — and we went back to work.”
Early this year, Mr. Mormando was feeling in the best shape of his life. He finished the New York City Marathon last year and was looking forward to preparing for his second Ironman triathlon when he noticed the bump on his chest.
“On March 23 this year, I got a diagnosis from my doctor that I had invasive ductal carcinoma, which is breast cancer,” he said.
Mr. Mormando had surgery to remove tumors in his right and left breast. He is on a chemotherapy and radiation protocol.
“It’s been a long time — nine months worth of treatment and hell. I’ve had some side effects and some setback, but luckily I’m still here and still doing OK,” he said.
He is motivated to speak about his experience and hopes to inspire other men, especially those who worked in or around ground zero, to have cancer screenings and become aware that they can develop rare diseases.
“There’s a lot of men out there that literally don’t know that they can get breast cancer,” he said. “If I can help somebody, my situation won’t be in vain.”