James Warren Robicheaux

Facing the unexpected

Like many men in their 30s, James Warren Robicheaux felt like his health was great.

Robicheaux is senior administrator of ETMC Pittsburg. The hospital had just started offering calcium scoring—a cardiac computed topography scan that shows if there’s any plaque in the coronary arteries. He told the hospital’s physicians he would give them a free scan to see how it works. They agreed to do it, but only if he would.

Robicheaux did the test and that evening one of the doctors called him and asked if he could meet him at his office. “I was actually anxious to go because I was thinking it was something work related,” he said. “I was not expecting to hear that I had an 8-centimeter mass in my chest. My calcium score was a perfect zero!”

Robicheaux says he was in complete shock. He was only 35 years old. He had no history of cancer in his family. “I was really numb for awhile to the specifics.”

The next part of his story gets complicated. He was scheduled for surgery at ETMC Tyler. The surgeon was able to remove most of the cancer, but discovered that the cancer had spread to his abdomen, heart, vascular system and his neck.

He was diagnosed with a rare, invasive cancer called thymoma, which affects the thymus, a small organ that lies in the chest under the breastbone and is part of the lymph system. It makes white blood cells and protects the body against infections. Most of the time, this type of cancer doesn’t show any symptoms, and is discovered, like in Robicheaux’s case, with a chest X-ray.

Because of the rarity of this type of cancer and the possibility of damage to the heart and lungs from traditional radiation, Robicheaux’s physicians recommended proton therapy at a Houston hospital. His wife and children moved there with him for two months, while he underwent intensive treatment.

“My support system was very important. My dad is a pathologist and he looked over my tissue samples. My wife deserves the most praise for taking care of me and the children. She kept me positive and motivated and focused on getting better. ETMC employees also were very supportive and raised money to help with my treatment and relocation to Houston. Also, ETMC administration was very supportive while I was away.”

Robicheaux also went through five rounds of chemotherapy in Tyler. He recently had a follow up scan and was proud to report that he was still cancer free.

“After my diagnosis, I think almost all of the employees at ETMC Pittsburg and Quitman signed up for the calcium scoring. Even though the test is meant to detect calcium buildup in the arteries of the heart, in my case, it detected cancer. It’s been over a year now, and it’s hard to wrap my mind around that impromptu decision to have a test that saved my life. I have been truly blessed by God, and that’s the only explanation I have.”

Thymoma

Thymoma/thymic carcinoma are rare types of cancer, with an estimated 400 cases (combined) per year in the United States. The cause is unknown, but people with thymoma may have other diseases of the immune system. There are no screening tests specifically for this cancer, but it’s typically discovered when an x-ray or CT scan is performed for another reason.

Some patients may have no signs or symptoms, while about one-third will have a lingering cough, chest pain, shortness of breath, hoarseness, decreased appetite and trouble swallowing.

ETMC programs for cancer patients

Many cancer patients find comfort through the ETMC Cancer Institute’s support groups. These groups meet several times a month, and consist of East Texans with different types of cancer. Participants meet to talk about their lives, their treatment or and what they are concerned about at the time.

For more information, call the ETMC Cancer Institute at 903-535-6302 or click here.

What is a cardiac calcium score?

A cardiac CT scan for coronary calcium is a non-invasive way of obtaining information about the presence, location and extent of calcified plaque in the coronary arteries. When arteries are highly calcified they become narrow and develop plaque. This plaque is at risk of developing clots and a heart attack could occur.

For more information, call in Tyler 903-531-8000 and press 1, or click here.


Go to the ETMC Cancer Institute page.