September 6th, 2020
 #Together, Tougher Than Cancer – The “Roman Reigns” #StayingSagerStrong Story…

 In honor of National Blood Cancer Awareness Month, Stacy Sager, President of the SagerStrong Foundation, had the honor of sitting down and speaking with WWE Universal Champion — Joe Anoa’i (aka -“Roman Reigns”) to talk with him about how he stayed tough in the face of cancer and fought through his second bout / CML diagnosis and treatment in 2019.

Before becoming a WWE Superstar, Joe Anoa’i was a college student at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, GA, where he was a rising football star with big plans to make it in the NFL. This is where our conversation begins.

Stacy: Take us back to your first cancer diagnosis – what were your signs and symptoms — how did you know something was wrong?
Joe: This was right in the process of me entering the NFL draft and hoping to be picked up by a team and I was just finishing up at Georgia Tech. I was 21 and just a young man. The only thing I had ever dreamed of was football and playing in the NFL. Since I was seven years old; that was the goal — to be somewhat of a sports star, but to be in the NFL. I did not get drafted, but I did sign a free-agent deal with the Minnesota Vikings and just to kind of put it in a nutshell, athletics from the beginning, has always kind of saved my life. Having that opportunity to go to rookie camp up in Minneapolis before you go in to practice or you sign your contract, you have to go through a full physical and it’s the NFL, so they put you through a very detailed physical and also bloodwork. That is the portion, which saved my life being that it is leukemia and blood cancer, just getting that CBC was the first detailed hint that something was going on with me. We did that all the morning before practice — went to meetings, went about the day, went to practice, and had a really good practice, which is kind of irrelevant, but that’s one of the little details I hold on to. I had a really good practice that day.

So, we’re following up at meetings and watching films of that practice and as soon as I walk out of the meeting room, two of the trainers are there to pull me off to the side to tell me that there is going on with my blood work and they needed to take me back to the clinic to do a second round to make sure it wasn’t a false reading or make sure nothing serious was going on. We went back and did the blood work and the results were pretty much the same. I had 70,000 white blood cells and at the time that did not mean anything to me — I had no clue what was going on. Like I said, I was tunnel vision on being part of the NFL and being a part of that Vikings team. And from there, the team made contacts for me, to get me home and to get to me an oncologist. And from that moment on, I relied on my mom and my family to guide me through it. Looking back at it now I was just in shock; being so young and not any true adversity at that point in my life and everything kind of went smoothly for me. I was a young athlete. I did well in school. I was fairly popular and I had a lot of friends in high school, so I had nothing “punch me in the mouth” so to speak, like

that, so this was something that really put me on my butt. It’s funny because, with my wrestling career, we started out as a group called “The Shield” and we wear tactical vests, it’s like a SWAT team looking mentality, and a lot of times they have those hooks on the back to where if something happens your teammate can kind of drag you through. At that time my Mom was my teammate, she kind of grabbed me by that strap and dragged me through the process and made sure everything was ok, because I don’t think I was truly prepared at that point to soak it in and absorb it.

The fact that it took Reigns only 127 days from the time of his cancer announcement to his return to the ring is a miracle. When Reigns was diagnosed with Leukemia at the age of 22, the symptoms were foreign, but this time he was aware that the red flags were there, and they were hard to ignore. According to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, leukemia begins in a cell in the bone marrow and, over time, the infected cells can suppress the production of normal cells. A healthy adult should have a white blood cell count of between 4,000 and 11,000. In Roman’s case, a white blood cell count well over 100,000 caused alarm. Through further examination, doctors discovered an enlarged spleen and knew exactly what was happening.

Stacy: What was it like getting back into the ring after your second diagnosis and sharing the news with your fans?
Joe: I have to start out by saying, we men are stubborn beasts and can be hardheaded animals. It was nerve wracking to be honest, to be able to share that information, as you know very well, with the world especially now a days, with the connectivity of social media and just how potent the internet can be in a very good and bad way sometimes, especially with the wrestling community and sports entertainment; fans are very passionate and very vocal about what’s good and bad. So, my main thing was to disarm them and to make them aware that this was not storyline. This was not entertainment, this was not WWE, this was not a role, and to introduce them to Joe Anoa’i for the first time. That was very scary at the time, but as soon as two, three, four, maybe five minutes in, to be able to see those faces live and to see those people in the crowd. It is tough because they are there for an entertainment show; they are there to escape and to enjoy themselves and I am dropping this bomb on them so to speak. But, for them not to react in a harsh way, to be so gentle with me, to allow me to share what was going on with me, not the character, but the man behind the character, and let them know about my struggle and the situation, that island that you were talking about, that isolation is very real. Twenty minutes before I went out there, I felt like I was on an island all by myself, even with my co-workers surrounding me and giving me love and support. They were still going to be able to do their job tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day, but my future was uncertain. I did not know what I was going to do, I knew that I was going to get on a plane and go back home and I would figure it out from there. But, as soon as I felt that love from the crowd and the support it literally felt like a security blanket wrapped around me all in that one moment. I knew that it was going to be a different story this time around and from there it was like a snow effect, the momentum just really set in because especially for me and my character, I can be a bit polarizing where the crowd can go back and forth with me and we can experience a bunch of different emotions while I’m out there in the arena. Once I got back and was able to check out some of the social media, whether it was Twitter or Instagram or Facebook, I was really able to feel that love and support from not only the just the 10,000 or so people in the arena, but everybody around the whole, the whole WWE universe and then it really felt like it stretched out even further than WWE and sports entertainment. It felt like people from all walks of life, all different forms of entertainment – just people who had no clue who I was still sending me best wishes and get well soon wishes and the support that I needed to heal.

Stacy: For a normal person, a cancer diagnosis is extremely difficult to hear, and most of the people reading this story won’t have the outpour of love and support that you had from friends and fans your second time around… what advice might you share from your first experience to help cancer patients get through the fight?   What got you through it – what helped you when you were on that island before you went public the second time?
Joe: My family and just the idea of my family surrounding me and not being alone. Like I said, during the first time when no one really knew who I was, my mom really was able to secure me and make sure that we got through this. Some people are not blessed with a big family or they have had losses in their family. Sometimes friends are the family that we choose and not only that but relationships just in general. When you walk into an oncology center and your meeting with your doctor, you’re not only just meeting with your doctor, there are a lot of really nice caregivers and nurses and people who take my blood every single week and sometimes multiple times a week. These are people who see you go through day 1 all the way to two years later hopefully and watch you succeed through the process and watch that fight come out in you, watch the hope that your able to give to not necessarily people around the world, but people in the same room as you. That is one thing that I felt sitting in a lobby waiting to go do my bloodwork, there was sometimes that I felt sense of camaraderie with the others. Some were elders, some were younger people like me. Even to this day, it’s a little different now being in a pandemic because we take proper measures of keeping the rooms and waiting rooms not crowded, but still there is this form of bonding that you have, that you know you’re going through a similar situation, you’re going through a similar struggle and at least one walk of life, one little thread of your life you know exactly what they’re going through, what they could possibly be mentally and emotionally. I think if you can just grab on to any relationship possible and just know that you are not alone and really use those senses to tap into that, that’s something that’s something that will help you get through it.

Stacy: I want to go back to your original diagnosis, and the time that elapsed between diagnoses…  medical staff usually celebrates once a cancer patient passes the five year mark, that a patient most likely is now “in the clear…”  Was it a shock to you that your cancer had returned after 11 years?
Joe: Yeah, it was especially like at that point, the first time I was getting to where I wanted to be. This time around, I had achieved and had success – I had found a way. I had found a purpose within my career, being an entertainer and connecting with the audience one way or another, whether they liked me or not. It was a bond that we had of creating escapism and creating content to allow people to not necessarily be stuck in the moment that they are in – whether it was good, bad, or indifferent. We could just go to wrestling. We could just go to WWE for 2-3 hours and just forget about the rest. That was something that as an entertainer, we are doing that for them, but as an audience, they are creating an environment for us to fulfill our passion – to create, to tell stories. I think that was the biggest obstacle was dealing with letting them down and being very real with them and showing the not so “superman” about me. We are characters to a lot these people, which sometimes you can be a cartoon – its almost as if you are not real. So, to let the curtains down and kind of show them the “trick” and to kind of get rid of the “smoke and mirrors”, it was a difficult time. Like I said before, the love and support that was kind of showered upon me just really put me at ease to where I knew that this was so much more than the relationship and I knew it was never going to be the same, the relationship that I have with the audience now – it’s always going to be so much “thicker”, just such a closer bond now because we have been through something. We have gone through a struggle and through some “real life” together now.

Stacy: What do you do mentally daily to stay strong; any advice for cancer patients in these COVID times?
Joe: For me it is key to surround yourself with great resources and LLS has always been an obvious one for me. Just visiting their website to get some information, because especially in isolation our brains can do amazing work to outthink yourself. If you can just slow that down and take it day by day and find some ways to distract yourself and focus on something. Whether it’s eating a better diet, spending time with your children, watching some movies with your loved ones, maybe working out a little bit, going on walks, throwing the ball to your dog – things that you enjoy and things that will allow you take your mind off the stress. When you do find yourself in those moments, really rely on reliable resources and get proper information. To me, especially when it involves blood cancer, has always been one of the top tier organizations as far as research and support. Especially during these times, they have assistance programs that are helping people in the times of COVID. I think it is important to just rely on the resources that you have and sometimes it is as easy as just Googling it — looking it up and doing a little research. Also, trying to find the silver linings in times like this. There are so many times I have said, “I wish I weren’t so busy” or “I wish I had a little bit of time to breathe”. I know that this is not the ideal time, but since we have it you might as well try to find that silver lining and take advantage of the little bit of time you have to read a book now or give your kid’s a bath. These are a lot things that I never had time to do because I was traveling and always in and out of the household, so for me I find a lot of appreciation in the little things that I can do around the house now. I know it’s tough. I know a lot of people are going through a lot of tough times, dealing with unemployment, but if we can just find the small things to enjoy in life and not necessarily focus on the tough times. I know you have to focus, be prepared, and have a plan, but if you can take 20 minutes out of the day to just focus on the good things in life, then I think that can take you a long way.

Stacy: Let’s talk about the slogan you have developed with LLS,  “Together – Tougher than Cancer” – can you just give me a few words of what that means to you?
Joe: For me especially, it has always been a group fight. I have always had support — whether it was just my family, even when I felt I was I was on that island of isolation, I still had my loved ones and my family and friends surrounding me and picking me up when I was down. All the way to being in situation of being a public figure and having the whole world and especially a huge group of strangers that had my back. That is why I think going forward that it is important to pay it forward and to help those who are not necessarily in a position where they feel empowered and feel like they have that support. If we can take advantage of social media and this awareness era and the information era that we’re in and help people know that you’re not alone; you’re not fighting this by yourself. There are a lot of people out there; this is a huge world and there are thousands and thousands, which is kind of sad to say, but at the same time we bond on that struggle that you’re not by yourself. You are in a big group and there are people to rely on and there are people who understand what you’re going through. If you feel like you are alone, please try to tap into these resources and find that help and find that support that’s out there.

credit: thesagerfoundation

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