Merkel cell carcinoma survivor: I’ve been blessed by MD Anderson
Arthur Sulkin believes a series of personal experiences put him in a unique position to deal with what he calls “the trauma of cancer.”
During the Vietnam War, he served in the military and flew special ops planes in southeast Asia over five years and three different missions. When his plane was shot down in Laos, he suffered health issues from combat. But he believes it was exposure to the Agent Orange chemical that led him to develop health issues, including cancer, later in life.
Following his military service, Arthur returned to the United States. He began a long career as an engineer and specialized in rocket propulsion, even supporting for the Apollo 15 mission for NASA.
Arthur and his wife had two children. His oldest child, a son, was killed in a plane crash when he was only 13 years old.
“Maintaining my faith was important and critical for me. I’ve also had incredible support from family and friends who prayed for me. That makes a big, big difference in going through things like this,” says Arthur.
In 2012, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He knew of MD Anderson’s reputation and, at his wife’s urging, made an appointment.
“My wife was a nurse, and I always turned medical things over to her. She said, ‘Without a doubt you’re going to MD Anderson.’ She loved me and wanted the best for me, and MD Anderson was it. I’ve been blessed by this hospital ever since,” recalls Arthur.
Prostate cancer treatment delayed by heart issues
Arthur’s care team, led by urologist John Ward, M.D., recommended cryoablation, which uses freezing temperatures to destroy cancerous tissue, for his prostate cancer treatment. But during his pre-surgery physical, doctors discovered Arthur had a blocked artery and would need heart surgery before the cancer could be treated.
A few months after heart surgery, Arthur underwent cryoablation. That put the prostate cancer in remission.
Based on Arthur’s medical history, she ordered a biopsy of the spot. When the results of the biopsy came back, Arthur was diagnosed with Merkel cell carcinoma, a rare but aggressive skin cancer.
His care team recommended surgery, followed by 28 rounds of radiation therapy. In July, head and neck surgeon Ryan Goepfert, M.D., performed surgery to remove the skin cancer, and one month later, Arthur completed radiation therapy.
Unfortunately, in January 2020, the Merkel cell carcinoma returned in the same location on Arthur’s cheek. His care team explained that it is very unusual for this type of cancer to return in the same location and would require more aggressive treatment than Arthur’s initial diagnosis.
Under the care of head and neck medical oncologist Renata Ferrarato, M.D., Arthur completed two rounds of the immunotherapy drug pembrolizumab, and in March 2020, Goepfert performed a 13-hour surgery to remove the cancerous portion of Arthur’s cheek. Plastic surgeon David Adelman, M.D., used skin taken from Arthur’s thigh to replace the skin removed from his cheek and neck. The lymph nodes on the left side of his face were also removed.
“It’s been an ongoing experience, but everyone at MD Anderson cares,” says Arthur. “It’s not just about my surgeon; it’s a collection of people. The doctors and staff have been fantastic.”
Finding support through cancer treatment after loss
In 2016, Arthur's wife of almost 48 years passed away in her sleep.
“When I lost my wife, my daughter took on an important role as my caregiver,” says Arthur. “She knows more about Merkel cell carcinoma than I do. She’s even impressed my surgeon with how much she knows about the disease. I’m very lucky to have her.”
For now, Arthur follows up every with his care team every four months for scans and tests. He’s able to receive most of his treatment at MD Anderson in Sugar Land, which is closer to his home.
Although it can sometimes be difficult to keep up with all of the medical details, Arthur and his daughter work together to be prepared for his upcoming appointments and tests.
“God, my family and my doctors have been what has carried me through the tough times. Through it all, I’ve learned that you have to listen to your doctors and trust them. Work with them and listen to what is being said,” advises Arthur. “Absorb it so you can prepare yourself for the next phase. Plan for it and don’t sluff it off.”