In October 2018, global searches of leukaemia spiked after one man announced his leukaemia to the world.
WWE star Leati Joseph Anoaʻi aka Roman Reigns sent shockwaves through the sporting community with his announcement. At 6ft3 and weighing over 265lb, he cut an impressive figure in the ring with the spotlight of the world on him as he relinquished his world title to face leukaemia treatment.
On February 25th 2019, just 126 days after this announcement, Reigns returned to the spotlight and announced his remission.
It was backstage at the O2 arena in London where we met Reigns for the first time, with showtime just an hour away. ‘Smackdown Live’ will be filmed in the UK and, in a few short hours, beamed to the US to millions of fans awaiting the next storyline in the WWE. He’s in the middle of a feud with ‘Elias’, a charismatic 6ft, 220lb opponent with flowing locks and a tendency to attack an opponent using a guitar.
In the minutes before we are due to speak to him, he’s being interviewed by the BBC; their presenter also lives with a chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML) diagnosis. Despite the relative rarity of his leukaemia, he is suddenly in a room full of people like him.
Although physically imposing, there is no doubt that he is less muscular than he once was. His appearance has been scrutinised by fans and media alike – how is it possible to return from cancer looking the way he does? In an industry that has created storylines about a number of topics, was it possible that this was a story for a character?
He’s keen to dispel any myths around his cancer, “I think there is ignorance of leukaemia. The word alone is intimidating. ‘Leukaemia’ it sounds like a cancer word. It sounds like it could take your life. What people haven’t realised is the different phases. That’s the whole thing about me and this huge WWE platform, that’s why I want people to know. I want people to understand that it’s not what people see in the movies. We’re in a different place now; we are making advancements, there are things we are doing to help people and save lives – we just don’t always concentrate on those things.”
In the days following his return, a documentary was released by WWE chronicling the journey of one of their biggest stars and it was revealed for the first time that Reigns had been living with chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML), a treatable but incurable form of blood cancer, for over a decade. Chasing an American Football career in his early 20s, a medical exam diagnosed his blood cancer.
It’s crouched over backstage equipment where Roman gave us insight into what it’s really like living with CML. He’s softly spoken in many ways but passionate when discussing the perceptions of what a cancer patient looks like, “In the media, what we like to talk about is very controversial, that’s what we want to discuss. We don’t want to discuss the good moments or ‘the wins’. With my story and the help of my medication, and the medical breakthroughs that we have, I think it’s very important to understand that. We are winning some of these battles. There are very specific reasons why I am maintaining the look and the health that I have, and it’s important that people know that.”
If you’re not a fan, you may have an image of what WWE wrestling is all about. Vivid memories of Hulk Hogan with his crop of blonde hair and red vest is ingrained in the minds of many as he became an icon of the 80s and early 1990s. Here in the UK, many people have fond memories of Big Daddy on World of Sport, with whole families cheering on their favourite stars.
Roman Reigns is now the face of the WWE (formerly known as WWF). The brand has morphed into something bigger than wrestling. Their social media presence alone has over a billion followers worldwide, and with this it is arguable that Reigns is now the best known CML patient in the world and overnight has become a figure for other patients to look up to. Reigns himself finds inspiration in other people, “I’m inspired by the children. For me, I’m very fortunate. With the opportunities and the connections we make through the WWE, through Make a Wish, LLS (Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, a US charity) and different paediatric hospitals that I’m able to visit. It’s these young children; to be able to be so new to this world and to be able to take on so much darkness, to be able to continue to focus on the light when you’re going through the clouds. The beauty of this now and being this kind of flagbearer for CML patients is the fact it creates so many opportunities to meet so many new people, to meet so many people with great stories, to shed light to their story.
“What I want to do is to take this giant mountain that WWE has, and take so many of these victory stories, and plant these flags on top so that we can share them with the world.”
For patients like Roman, many will take a treatment called a tyrosine kinase inhibitor, or TKI. In the most basic of terms, this is a treatment that is targeted at the leukaemia cells. Whilst his treatment can’t cure a patient of leukaemia, it can keep cells at an almost undetectable level. These treatments aren’t without their side effects. Some sections of the media, particularly in the wrestling media, have argued about whether this treatment can be classed as a chemotherapy in the more traditional sense.
At this point, Roman is more serious, “I take an oral chemotherapy. I don’t have to go in for radiation. The analogy I use is that I went to war, but I didn’t shoot my gun. Now the question seems to be ‘have you suffered enough?’or ‘you’re not as bad as this person’. Why should I be as bad as the next person? Do I have to be as bad as the next person to be in a bad way? We’re all different and we all have our own journeys. I’m not going to belittle my story or be ashamed of it just because I didn’t suffer as much as the next person. I would never ask that or never want it to be. I’m very fortunate for how my life has turned out, and the struggles that I’ve met and thankfully conquered. I’m good where I’m at and I don’t need anything worse to prove anything to anybody else.
“This is what I feel when people see me in that ring, when they know I came through what happened to me and still do something like being a performer and throwing my body around in front of millions of people. The fact that I am still able to do that, I think that should give a lot of hope to people that they can lead a normal life and can still capture their dreams.”
TKI treatments can come with a series of side effects from muscle cramps and pain to fatigue. Previously, Reigns revealed to the world that his treatment had caused some arthritis but he shared a little more about the daily effect that these tablets have on his life, “Some days it makes me a little nauseous; I do a good job in trying to keep everything down and not going the full way in terms of being sick. It can disrupt your stomach a little bit. You have to change some of your eating habits. I can’t take in as much protein as I used to. In terms of my alcohol, I’ve got to be that guy who kind of sits on the side of the party here and there, I’ll maybe have myself a glass of wine. For the most part, it’s out completely. I can’t really go in the sun as much, I have hyperpigmentation from my medication. There are a few different effects, but at the end of the day, I woke up. I’d rather deal with a few side effects here and there and continue to wake up every day.”
When diagnosed with CML, Reigns was about to become a Dad for the first time to his daughter. Since diagnosis, he has also welcomed twin sons with his wife who he married in 2014. While his boys are still young, Reigns has worked hard to assure his daughter that he’s going to be ok, “I didn’t take on a huge physical transformation, so I think that helped my older daughter and stopped her becoming too worried. She’s always looked at me as a personality of strength, as someone who can go and do these crazy things and get the family where we need to be. I didn’t want to take that perspective away from her, I wanted to continue to be that real-life superhero. I think as she gets older, and as her understanding becomes greater, she will know what happened and how the life I have lived has been pretty remarkable. I just don’t want her to worry too much for me.”
As a newly crowned advocate for blood cancer patients, Reigns is keen to support and inspire others who are going through a similar situation. Men are notoriously poor at reaching out for support, even when they need it, “Us men, we are stubborn people. We are proud and we wear it on our sleeves. Drop your pride guys. Trust your medical staff and believe in what they are saying. We think we are macho men, and our bodies can just do it. We need the help. Our doctors and medical staff put so much time and so much effort into resources to find these different medications and cures. Do the simple thing and take your pill. Don’t be stubborn, there is nothing wrong with a little bit of help.”
And with that, he’s gone. Ushered away by his team to get ready for a show where crowds will cheer for each spear performed and Superman punch landed. For this CML patient, it’s all part of the day job.