Mary Ghiglione, cancer survivor: 'Poker saved my life'

Haley Hintze Author Photo
Haley Hintze
Posted on: June 30, 2022 03:06 PDT

Stories abound in the upper echelons of the poker world about how players occasionally find greater purpose and meaning within the game, helping to rescue themselves from despair and giving them reason to live. Las Vegas's Mary Ghiglione has a very different sort of life-saving poker tale to share, one in which a chance instant at a poker table led to her discovering a sizeable lump below her collarbone, and from there, to life-saving cancer surgery and treatment.

Ghiglione, now 68, is a bubbly and good-natured player who's still a virtual newcomer to the WSOP scene. A retired OB/GYN nurse from Seattle, she projects that joy -- and a bit of wonder -- that relative newcomers have when they get to experience the expanse and the energy of the WSOP in person. The WSOP veterans, the grinders, they've had that exuberance worn off by years at the tables. But for Ghiglione, as with so many others, the WSOP is a special, unique treat.

Ghiglione had played in the Ladies Championship before, but live events for her remain rare occasions. Before 2022, she'd recorded the grand total of two Hendon Mob cashes, though she's already gained two more this summer. caught up with Ghiglione in a chance meeting in the WSOP's registration line, where she was waiting to enter the WSOP's $150 Ladies Warmup event, the precursor to the following day's Ladies Championship. She later took a few minutes on the first break of the Warmup to share her story in detail with and she, hopes, a larger section of the poker world.

A life-saving high-hand jackpot

Few players have ever enjoyed a moment of greater personal fortune at the tables than Ghiglione did when she visited a Bellingham, Washington casino over 17 years ago. "I really am blessed," she begins. "I really feel I'm one of the only people that can say poker's actually saved my life. Our son was dealing poker up in a little casino in Bellingham, Washington. We decided to go check it out and see it, you know, as he was kind of supplementing his income while he was in college. So we went up there and it was a fairly new casino, and they had a high-hand payout every hour, and I flop a straight flush, a nine-high straight flush."

In celebrating getting the high-hand payout, Ghiglion raised her arms high. "So I threw my shoulder forward. And when I did that, I found a lump up high." She rubs a spot high on her left chest, just under her collarbone. "Now, this was in March. I had just been in in December for my mammogram, and everything was clear. So in March, I find this lump pretty high on my left side, and I'm an OB nurse. So I went into work the next day and asked, to one of the docs, 'Hey, do you think I need another mammogram? What do you think this is?' She says, 'Oh, yeah, just go get another mammogram. It's probably lipoma, but it's close here.'"

By close, the doctor meant the proximity to Ghiglione's left breast, and thus the possibility of breast cancer. So she underwent the unscheduled mammogram, and the lump was indeed a harmless lipoma, a normally non-malignant fatty tumor that often grows under the skin. But there was more.

The full mammogram series checks both breasts, not just one. And as Ghiglione explains, "And on that mammogram, I had an eight-centimeter area of cancer on my breast, on the right side. On the other side, and it had nothing to do with the lipoma. The lipoma was sort of a red herring, but it got me back and had I waited until December for my next mammogram, it would have been too late. They said that, because it did go right to my lymph glands, but stopped. So I didn't need radiation. I didn't need chemo. All I needed was surgery and mastectomies. And I actually said take them both because they had to get the lipoma, too; it was too close to my heart. And it was already on the second side. So had I not been in and made that decision to mention something I found, then I wouldn't probably be here, they said."

Promoting breast-cancer awareness

That was in 2005, Ghiglione explains, and she's been cancer-free ever since. Six years ago, she retired, and she and her husband left the Seattle area moved to Las Vegas; he works part-time as a poker dealer at the Venetian.

Ghiglione's poker-connected great fortune and her medical background has led her to advocate for breast-cancer awareness whenever she can find the opportunity. "I really am passionate about getting the word out," she says. "I have five sisters. I'm on them every year; my oldest sister just found a lump. She had a middle lumpectomy and everything was fine. We have no other family history now except for her; nobody in our families has had cancer.

"But you know, with this COVID now, I'm concerned that people have delayed [getting breast-cancer screenings]. Get your mammograms. Breasts are no good, if they're going to kill you, absolutely. That's my story and I'm sticking to it."

Promoting poker, too

Ghiglione and her husband actually started playing poker about 20 years, a year or two before Chris Moneymaker WSOP Main Event win helped usher the game deeper into the mainstream. But Mary, besides playing a bit where her son dealt, still wasn't really committed at first. "I used to get kind of intimidated because, seriously, I was one of the only women playing. I just had to learn how to play around all these guys.

"Then, when we moved here to Vegas, I was really intimidated to go into a casino. So in our neighborhood in Salt Creek, I taught 10 of the women how to play poker. We have a poker game every week, and it's usually at one of the other girl's homes. We just rotate houses. I was trying to get them to come down here and play with me tonight. I texted one of them. And she was like, 'No, no, not this year.' But you know, for $150 (the Warmup buy-in), one of them plays bingo for $450. 'Come on, you can always do it,' I told her."

"And if I do well," Ghiglione tells, as she shifts topics, "I'm going to try to win my way in for tomorrow." That's the Ladies Championship, which she's played just once before. She also plays some online, and admits that she finds that to be a more comfortable experience. But this week is special; she's played in three events already before the Warmup and has picked up a cash in a tourney at the Orleans.

We wrap up our chat, and Ghiglione heads back out to the Paris Ballroom floor. It turns out to be another good night, as she finishes 23rd for her fourth career HendonMob cash, even if it hadn't been listed yet at the time of this story's publication. She did get to play the Ladies event, where she went quite deep but missed the cash. Still, Mary Ghiglione is likely to tell anyone who'll listen that she's had a pretty good week, one that if things had gone differently, she likely never would have had the chance to experience at all.

Featured image source: Haley Hintze