Cancer doctors’ triumphs, despair, heartbreak, joy

In In The News by Barbara Jacoby

Thumbnail for 6755By: Ann Hardie


In 2012, Atlanta author Vincent Coppola was shocked and devastated when he joined 1.6 million other Americans diagnosed that year with cancer. Following the brutal treatment, the 66-year-old regained some semblance of normalcy by — what else? — writing a book about cancer, “The Big Casino.” The title refers to a euphemism coined by doctors at a time when cancer was virtually a no-win proposition. The book, written with retired Atlanta oncologist Stanley Winokur, offers powerful stories from the country’s top cancer doctors who have improved the odds for many patients. Some of the entries are inspirational, others depressing, all revelatory. “No one had ever asked them to share their stories,” Coppola said. “They had kept their moments of triumph and despair and heartbreak and joy and awe to themselves.” The book is available on Amazon, but Coppola and Winokur are working to secure funding to put it in the hands of new cancer patients nationwide free of charge.

Q: Can you talk about your own cancer odyssey?

A: I was diagnosed with throat cancer — literally a lump just popped out on my neck. I’m not a smoker. I don’t drink very much. The odds of me having a cancerous lymph node in my neck seemed very, very slight. I was misdiagnosed a couple of times. A doctor I know, the collaborator on the book, insisted I go to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (in New York). They diagnosed the cancer in two seconds. I took a round of radiation and chemotherapy — probably one of the most gut wrenching and debilitating experiences of my life. I had a couple of lymph nodes removed. I’ve had two PET scans since then and both were clear.

Q: What was your reaction when you first heard the diagnosis?

A: I couldn’t believe my own body had betrayed me. This enemy somehow appeared within me and was determined to take my life. It was a very hard thing to come to terms with.

Q: Why did you write the book?

A: Cancer is the loneliest disease. I have family and friends and my partner Suzanne (Pruitt). I put all of this on Facebook, but it was still really lonely. Then I said, this has happened to millions of people before me. Wouldn’t it be nice to know what some of them felt and thought and acted when faced with catastrophe? What could they teach me? By extension, how could that information, including my own, somehow help other people?

Q: Why did you decide to do that through the doctors’ perspective?

A: Your doctor is God. Or if they give you bad news, they are the Grim Reaper. I began to wonder, what are these people really like? Who were the patients who stayed with them over the decades?

Q: Do the doctors think of themselves as godlike?

A: This book reveals that they are just ordinary human beings who have the same feelings, the same fears, the same doubts as the rest of us.

Q: Why did these doctors become oncologists?

A: Some saw cancer as this monster they wanted to go head to head with. Some had lost mothers or siblings to cancer. Two lost wives to breast cancer. A couple had had cancer themselves. Some had met patients who were so courageous and brave and inspiring.

Q: Do you think you could ever be an oncologist?

A: I don’t think I could deal on a daily basis with so many needy and desperate patients. I could write about them all day long. If there is a theme throughout this book, it is that in the face of this fatal illness, most people reach down and become kinder and more thoughtful and more sensitive and more loving. One of the things the docs said that stayed in my head was that, ultimately, cancer doesn’t change you. It makes you more like yourself.