While battling brain cancer, Michael Graydon lives World Series of Poker dream

World Series of Poker

After weeks of debating whether or not he should do it, Michael Graydon posted a simple plea to his few hundred followers on Twitter on Oct. 27.

"In March of this year I was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer," the 40-year-old wrote from his home in Moody, Alabama.

"Due to the location of my tumor there isn't anything medically they can do. This year I want to play the World Series of Poker main event and I need your help. Selling 70% at no markup just love to play."

Graydon didn't think he would be able to raise the $7,000 contribution to the WSOP buy-in he was asking for, but a friend convinced him it was worth a shot.

The goal was reached within 30 minutes.

But that was just the beginning. Moments later, Mj Gonzales, a poker player and coach, offered to fund the entire $10,000 entry fee and let Graydon keep the entirety of his winnings. Soon after, Jonathan Depa, a fixture on the poker circuit, said he would split the cost with Gonzales. All those who had previously contributed told Graydon to keep their money and put it towards travel costs. Maria Ho, one of the top-ranked female poker players in the world and television commentator, then volunteered to pay for his round-trip airfare to Las Vegas for the November event. Others came forward and offered to take him out for meals while in town or see if there was anything else he needed.

"People in the poker community will always show up, whether it's for someone we know personally or someone that has a story like Michael's," Ho said. "His tweet caught on and spread so quickly and it felt like everyone, even those who weren't able to help financially, just wanted to do whatever they could to amplify his story so he could get this opportunity."

Just over a week later, Graydon played in the main event at the World Series of Poker. He was eliminated on the first day, but that's not what Graydon will remember about the trip.

"Even though I busted out Day 1, I still had so much support and love from everybody," Graydon said after returning home to Alabama following the trip. "It was an experience I'll never forget, that's for sure. It didn't end the way I'd hoped, but just the experience alone and everything that's gone on has been really like a dream come true. It still seems like a dream."

Graydon projects positivity, no matter the subject, but his life has not been easy over the last several years. The cancer diagnosis is the latest in a string of challenges for him and his family.

When his youngest daughter Wryn, now 6, was three months old, she was rushed to the hospital and had to be revived after she stopped breathing. She survived, but was diagnosed with congenital nephrotic syndrome of the Finnish type, a rare and potentially fatal kidney disease.

Wryn needed both kidneys removed and was reliant on dialysis for 14 hours a day until she was big enough for a transplant. Graydon, his wife Haley, and their oldest daughter Blair, now 9, were all but confined to their house, and schedules were based around Wryn's care. After two years, Wryn was deemed eligible for a new kidney, and Graydon's mother proved to be a match. Grandma didn't hesitate to donate.

According to Michael, Wryn has thrived after the transplant but still requires to be fed through a gastrostomy tube and will need to take antirejection medication for the rest of her life.

"She's always laughing, always got a smile on her face, and she's a hoot," said Graydon. "She's definitely our wild child. She's always making us laugh and she's never once complained. She's gotten stuck with a needle probably 10,000 times in her life and she doesn't even cry. And you could see it in her eyes when she was younger than she just wasn't going to give up. The last six years, going through all that and watching her, has prepared me for this and whatever is to come."

In late 2019, after finally feeling as if life was getting back to normal, Graydon developed a bad cough. He underwent a series of medical tests to determine what was causing it, but they found nothing. It was only after an appointment with an ear, nose and throat doctor for a sinus infection that it was discovered he had a paralyzed vocal cord that was likely the result of something pressing on the nerve. An MRI followed and a glioma -- a type of tumor -- was discovered on his brain stem. In March of 2021 he was officially diagnosed and told the treatment options were limited. A procedure to remove it was simply not possible due to its location.

"After going through everything, you wonder why you've got to go through something again," Graydon said, remembering the moment he was first told. "It was more shock, really. My wife didn't want to hear anything, she just wanted sit there and pray and believe everything was going to be okay, but I wanted to know. It's slow-growing glioma. The bad part is it's on my brain stem, the medulla part where it controls all my blood pressure, my breathing, heart rate and all that."

He began a six-week regiment of radiation and oral chemotherapy, in hopes of shrinking the tumor or stopping its growth. He gets scans every three months to determine its progress.

Graydon owns a landscaping business and is its only full-time employee. He kept as many clients as he could but, about a month after treatment was over, he struggled with extreme fatigue and was unable to get out of bed some days.

Still, he is grateful to have the time at home with his daughters and that his wife is able to work. He credits his deep-rooted faith for getting him through even the toughest of days.

"I've always been a firm believer, even with my daughter, that everything happens for a reason," he said. "And so just knowing that all this isn't just null and void, there is a reason behind it all. And I may not get the answer on this side of eternity, but at some point I'll understand it all. I just take every day as a new day."

While his prognosis is somewhat uncertain because of the unpredictable nature of tumor growth, Graydon says his doctors have told him there is hope if they are able to slow it down. His scans since undergoing the treatment have been promising, including his most recent one earlier this month.

"Success to us with this treatment means the tumor isn't growing and you're doing about the same and haven't developed any new symptoms," said Dr. John Fiveash, Graydon's radiation oncologist at UAB Hospital in Birmingham, Alabama. "Michael hasn't had any new growth or a change in symptoms. The ideal situation would be ... at least several, and hopefully many, more years before he has any more problems. I think the chances this is cured for him are low, but we want to kick the can as far down the road as we can. ... Our goal for him is to lead as normal of a life as possible, and be able to do all the things he loves."

The diagnosis has made Graydon appreciate the days he does have -- no matter how many there are -- and that was the primary motivation for trying to play in the World Series of Poker main event. Graydon fell in love with poker as a teenager and had previously played a few events on the circuit, including the 2019 WSOP, but had mostly sidelined his passion to focus on his family. But come October, he knew he had to give his dream another chance.

His enthusiasm and determination left a lasting impression on his fellow competitors.

"I'm sure I take playing in the main event for granted, as do other professionals, because it's just a foregone conclusion for us," Ho said. "But Michael helped provide that perspective -- this is a dream for so many who just have that sheer love for the game. It's easy to get jaded and burnt-out, but it's really been a nice reminder of the bigger picture."

And while his time in the main event ended quickly in November, he is still playing. The World Poker Tour invited him to play in this week's Five Diamond World Poker Classic in Las Vegas -- all expenses paid.

He was eliminated on Wednesday, during the first day of play, but knows his biggest impact has nothing to do with a result at a tournament.

"I just want to be a positive impact, no matter what I have to go through," Graydon said. "If me going through all this is able to impact people positively, then it's well worth it."