By Jason Duaine Hahn | September 30, 2020
“I really just try to stress that we’re all in this together, that they’re not alone, though it can sometimes feel that way — especially being in the hospital at a time like this,” Roman Reigns tells PEOPLE
Six years later, Stephanie McMahon still remembers the day Connor Michalek walked into her life. “We were backstage after the Royal Rumble in Pittsburgh, it was after the show and it’s not unusual for there to be a meet-and-greet,” McMahon, WWE’s Chief Brand Officer, tells PEOPLE of the January 2014 event. “There was this little boy standing there, and I could see from the back that he was sick because he was bald, had a scar running up the back of his neck, and a big lump on the front of his head.” McMahon soon found out that the 8-year-old boy, who had just watched his favorite WWE superstars duke it out in the ring, was in a fight of his own. Connor had medulloblastoma, a fast-growing tumor that affects the brain or spinal cord, and didn’t have long to live. “I couldn’t believe it,” McMahon recalls. “I looked over at this little boy who was shadowboxing, and I just kept thinking, ‘It can’t be right. The doctors have to be wrong.’ ”
After sharing “one of the best hugs that I’ve ever had” with him, McMahon went home and immediately began discussing ways to help Connor with her husband, Paul “Triple H” Levesque, WWE’s executive vice president of global talent strategy and development. A few months later, the company invited Connor to sit front row for WrestleMania 30, where he watched Daniel Bryan — a performer who became a fan favorite for his underdog status — win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship in the main event. Following the match at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Bryan approached Connor after leaving the ring and thanked him for being an inspiration as the thousands in attendance looked on. Three weeks after the heartwarming moment, Connor tragically died. Each year, about 400 new patients — primarily children — are diagnosed with medulloblastoma in the United States, according to the American Brain Tumor Association. Treatment for the disease typically involves surgery to remove the tumor (if possible), followed by radiation and chemotherapy. How well a patient responds to these treatments is based on a variety of factors, such as their age at diagnosis, the size of the tumor, and if it has spread, and if the mass can be removed safely.
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Shortly after, McMahon and Levesque established Connor’s Cure, a fund to support pediatric brain and spinal cord cancer research. McMahon says she felt the cause was vital after finding only four percent of government money is used on childhood cancer research.
To highlight Childhood Cancer Awareness Month in September, WWE hosted the Superstar Challenge to invite fans to support the cause through donations, raising more than $13,000. Superstars themselves have also done their part by spending time with young cancer patients around the country over video during the coronavirus pandemic.
One superstar excited to participate was Roman Reigns, the current WWE Universal Champion, who was diagnosed with leukemia in his early 20s and again in 2018.
“I felt like, why is this happening? I’m healthy, I’m an athlete,” Reigns recalls of his initial diagnosis. “I was in the best years of my life, my prime as a young man and my girlfriend, who is now my wife, was pregnant with our first child. I had so much pressure and so much on my plate that it was hard for me to understand.” But Reigns says it was the strength he received from his faith and family that allowed him to get through the “mentally tough and emotionally draining” ordeal. That’s why he understands the importance of letting these young fans know they have his support. “I really just try to stress that we’re all in this together, that they’re not alone, though it can sometimes feel that way — especially being in the hospital at a time like this,” says Reigns, who also works with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. “By sharing my story, I think it’s a chance for them to see somebody who’s been through somewhat of a similar situation — someone who has been knocked down and had to pick themselves up — and reached victory on the other side.”
“I think it’s a positive thing for them to be able to see that type of outcome because, unfortunately, it’s not always the miracle, dream story, and that’s the hardest part,” he adds. “But I think it’s important that we do share the victories.”
Since its founding, WWE says Connor’s Cure has raised more than $3.5 million towards their efforts with assistance from Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh Foundation and the V Foundation. (Donations can be sent through their website.)
“When you see these kids, some of them two and three years old, fighting cancer, with all of these wires going in and out of their arms and what they have to endure, they need help. They really do,” McMahon says. “These kids and their families need as much help as they can possibly get.”
“If you’re in a position to be to help and to be able to provide that support,” Reigns adds, “you should absolutely pay it forward. I can tell you from real-life experience, that support is so crucial.”