The Start to Rolling the Dice After my Cancer Diagnosis

I was never a gambler … that is, until I was diagnosed with cancer.

I’m not a gambling man. I don’t go to the casinos or play the lottery. I'll buy a raffle ticket for a good cause, but I don’t recall ever winning anything.

My breast cancer diagnosis changed all of that.

This disease of mine forced me to make nebulous choices based on quickly collected facts, anecdotal stories and gut feelings. Almost overnight I became a gambler. Even the clinical trials upon which we often base our choices for treatment, rely on numbers and odds and probabilities. All of this reminds me of a good, competitive game of poker on a Saturday night.

Male breast cancer, along with any other rare versions of this disease, presents a unique challenge for the gamblers in the game, because the numbers are fewer, and the visible track record of the limited research is also diminished.

I’ve often thought of the three oncologists that I’ve employed since the discovery of cancer in my left breast, as gamblers too — though not in any negative way. Medical professionals have access to the same clinical information that we do if we’re willing to rummage through the research, but they, in most cases, are much better equipped to access that data.

After all, they do this work for a living while those of us with cancer are simply working to live.

And so, we learn to trust the experts with our very lives. My personal gamble began the day of my diagnosis, eight years ago. While the two oncologists I engaged both recommended chemotherapy for me based on their understandably limited experience with male breast cancer, I had recently watched my wife slowly succumb to the ravages of stage 4 ovarian cancer, and that experience was still fresh in my mind. The oncologist's estimated that I had an 80% chance of surviving for five years with my stage and grade of cancer. Not bad odds.

After a good deal of quick, personal research based primarily on anecdotal evidence since there were zero available clinical trials for men, I placed my bet and elected to become a gambler.

If you follow the stories of fellow cancer patients, it’s easy to draw this parallel between surviving and betting on horses at the track. Every decision we make, since we have no cure for cancer, is a gamble. We place our bet and wait for the results. And if the cards are not coming up in our favor, we move to another game. After all, once we throw the dice, the numbers are out of our hands.

To someone outside of our cancer world, this may all sound like a losing hand to begin with. It appears to be a risk that can only feel futile and discouraging. But I’ve learned how to stay hopeful in this cancer “crap-shoot” through the realization that I have no control in the outcome, once I spin the roulette wheel that guides my survival. Some will call us “lucky” when we beat the odds, but to me luck is just an observable sequence of numbers that give us reason to remain optimistic.

I’m willing to wager that we can all have continued good luck, but more importantly, good results as we wait for a jackpot in our own “Cancer Casino”.

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