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Village Father Survives Brain Cancer With Help From His Young Son

By Gustavo Solis | June 15, 2013 10:12am
 Brain cancer left Anthony Ptak unable to control the left side of his body. Now he's defying the odds for the sake of his son.
Anthony Ptak's Recovery
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GREENWICH VILLAGE — Anthony Ptak beat brain cancer in the fall of 2011 — but his battle for a normal life was just beginning.

The scar tissue in his brain left Ptak, 42, a Greenwich Village piano composer and former NYU music professor, unable to control the weakened left side of his body. That made it impossible for him to complete simple tasks, like lifting his young son Aedan.

"My son would look at me and put his arms up in the air," Ptak said of Aedan, who is now 5. "Every parent knows what that means. He wanted me to pick him up."

In April 2012, with encouragement from his wife, Jordana, Ptak signed up for the LiveStrong program at the Chinatown YMCA, a series of free physical therapy sessions to help cancer survivors rebuild their strength. He had one goal in mind — be strong enough to pick up his son.

Anthony Ptak on Fatherhood and Recovering From Cancer
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It was difficult at first, recalled Janet Martinez, 46, one of Ptak’s trainers. He would be on the bicycle and his arm would make sudden, involuntary movements. Even though Ptak was quiet during his first days at the Y, Martinez could see he was frustrated.

Every hour of every day, Ptak fights for control of half of his body. The part of his brain that regulates dopamine doesn’t work, so his muscles aren’t able to relax and contract. When you speak to him, his left eye looks straight at you and then rotates up toward his skull.

Despite all that, Ptak never missed a scheduled workout session during the 12-week program. He walked half a mile from his apartment near Washington Square Park through the crowded streets of the Village, past cyclists, cabbies and constructions sites to the YMCA at the Bowery and East Houston Street.

"One day he came in dripping wet and said, 'I can't carry an umbrella, and I didn’t want Access-a-Ride to make me late,'” Martinez said.

At first, Ptak’s workouts consisted of cardio on the bicycle, weight training with a weighted body bar and balancing exercises. The workouts were grueling, but every time Ptak got home to Aedan, with arms up saying, “Dad up,” he would be motivated to come back.

Aedan also helped Ptak adjust to his newfound disabilities. His son was born with Down syndrome and spent a lot of time in the hospital as soon as he was born. Aedan began going to occupational therapy when he was just three months old.

“I know that my son is brilliant despite his Down syndrome,” Ptak said. “When I look at my son I don’t see disability.”

Despite his Down syndrome, Aedan enrolled last fall in P.S. 3's general education kindergarten program, a fact Ptak states with pride.

After several weeks of training at the YMCA, Ptak started getting stronger. He stayed on the bike a little longer and did a couple of extra push-ups. It got to a point where he wasn’t quite done after his workouts. Ptak would find staff members to play basketball, swim or dance with him.

Then one day in late May of 2012, Ptak’s hard work paid off.

“I didn’t expect to carry him that day,” Ptak said. “But I came home and he was waiting for me and looking at me, demanding, ‘Dad, pick me up.’ At that moment I knew that I could do it.”

Ptak lifted his son, carried him to through the hallway into Aedan’s room and read him a story.

“I was thinking, ‘Holy crap, this paid off,’” Ptak said.

During his battle with cancer and the continuing recovery, Ptak also drew inspiration from his own father, a Vietnam veteran named Anthony who worked with the wounded during the war and came home with three Purple Hearts.

Ptak's father also returned home with PTSD, haunted by flashbacks that surfaced randomly, but he was able to fight through it and be a role model for his children.

“I didn’t know it at the time,” Ptak said, “but he was giving me what I needed to survive brain cancer.”

Ptak first realized there was something wrong with him in December of 2010, when he began struggling to walk. A trip that normally took him 20 minutes lasted more than an hour instead.

“People where yelling at me — they thought I was drunk or on drugs,” he recalled.

Doctors first thought Ptak had had a stroke because he couldn’t control the left side of his body. But in February of 2011, in the stroke ward at NYU Medical Center, they found a tumor in the middle of his brain.

The rare form of cancer — CNS lymphoma —went into remission in November 2011 after a brain biopsy and 18 cycles of chemotherapy. Doctors told him that even though he had Parkinson’s-like symptoms on the left side of his body, he was lucky to be alive.

In addition to working out at the YMCA, Ptak also invented a new way of playing the piano, turning mistakes into improvisation.

Inspired by Ptak's progress, the YMCA created a video showing how far Ptak has come, leading an anonymous donor to buy a gym membership for the family after Ptak graduated from the free LiveStrong program.

Ptak still isn’t completely satisfied with his physical limitations. His goals, like walking without a cane or conquering the subway, revolve around what he can do with his son.

“I want to take my son to the Natural History Museum,” he said. “I want to do things my dad would do with me.”

Although he doesn’t think he’ll be able to ditch the cane for at least another year, Ptak and his son recently completed the Central Park Challenge, a 3-kilometer walk to raise awareness for Down syndrome.

“It wasn’t the New York City marathon,” he said. “But I did it and I walked half of it without my cane.”

Like his father before him, Ptak is trying to be a strong role model for Aedan. Setting the right example is what fatherhood is all about, he said.

“I think you can know anything you need to know about a person by knowing who their father was,” he said. “If you have a strong father, that can really change your life. It’s not about position in life or profession but rather what is at the core of who that person was.”

Anthony Ptak will play his first public show with the New York Theremin Society at Joe's Pub at 425 Lafayette St. at 7 p.m. on June 28.