Growing up in Lebanon, good health came easily to Vartkes Taktajian. Running, soccer and basketball filled many of the natural athlete’s hours. The husband and father of two felt robust until 1987, when he began experiencing a sharp pain in his neck and trouble breathing. By that time, Vartkes had been living in Houston and working for a local refinery for 13 years.
Assuming the pain and breathing troubles were due to a bad cold, Vartkes’ doctor prescribed cold medicine. “When I was shaving a few days after the appointment, I saw an egg-shaped bump in my lower neck,” he says. Vartkes went back to the doctor, who said he had a goiter or a thyroid nodule, and told him he needed surgery.
Prioritizing his health
“My outlook on health changed after that,” Vartkes says. “I never smoked or drank, but I realized I needed to be more purposeful about my treatment. I decided to always put my health first.”
In June 1987, after seeking a second opinion, Vartkes underwent an operation to remove the growth. But the surgeon stopped mid-procedure after discovering he couldn’t remove the tumor without significantly affecting the trachea or surrounding tissues. He told Vartkes’ family that the tumor was pressing on the windpipe, and that Vartkes had about six months to live.
“That’s when my family said, ‘We want to move him to MD Anderson,’” says Vartkes, who had a cousin and a friend who worked here at the time.
Vartkes’ anaplastic thyroid cancer treatment
At MD Anderson, his doctor conducted a biopsy and gave Vartkes the news: he had stage IV anaplastic carcinoma of the thyroid. The rare, invasive thyroid cancer is characterized by rapid growth. Its invasion into surrounding tissues typically makes surgery a non-viable treatment.
But Vartkes didn’t take the news as a death sentence, and neither did his medical team. They started him on a month-long regimen of daily radiation therapy, along with six months of intravenous chemotherapy treatments of adriamycin and cisplatin.
Vartkes dealt with side effects that included weight loss and nausea, but was back at work within three months. By November 1987, the tumor had shrunk, and a biopsy showed no signs of cancer. “A family friend saw me and said, ‘It’s so good to see you alive,’” Vartkes says. “Doctors called me the ‘miracle man.’ I think everybody was more worried than I was. I always knew I was going to be fine.”
A continuum of care
For the next decade, Vartkes came to MD Anderson for bi-annual checkups, and he continued to show no signs of cancer. Eventually, the visits became annual. But that changed in February 2003, when Vartkes couldn’t overcome months of coughing and was having difficulty breathing.
He returned to MD Anderson, where doctors discovered he had partial necrosis of the right lung. Ara Vaporciyan, M.D., removed the collapsed, dead tissue surgically.
After the surgery, Vartkes had checkups with Steven P. Weitzman, M.D., at MD Anderson in Sugar Land. A November 2016 CT scan showed nodules on his left lung. It was metastatic cancer from the original thyroid cancer, which remains undetectable. On Feb. 21, Mara Antonoff, M.D., performed surgery at our Texas Medical Center Campus to remove the nodules from his left lung.
“I am very satisfied,” Vartkes says. “The doctors here are excellent and helpful. They explain exactly what they are going to do and why.”
A healthy outlook
While Vartkes has experienced a few setbacks, he still considers himself fortunate to be alive 30 years after his original thyroid cancer diagnosis.
“I feel really good,” he says. “I walk every day with my wife, Arpie, and I don’t eat fast food. I’m very watchful of my health. We also pray together, which strengthens our faith in God. We give all the glory to Him for what He has done for me.”
Now in his 70s, Vartkes is focused on staying well. “I’m a fighter,” he says. “Even after all of these years, I don’t give up. I look forward. And I thank all of the wonderful doctors at MD Anderson for the great care they have provided.”
When he meets others facing cancer, Vartkes tells them, “If I were you, I would go to MD Anderson. If I hadn’t gone to MD Anderson, I wouldn’t be talking to you today.”
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