Known in the WWE as Roman Reigns, Joe Anoai is used to putting up a fight. The professional wrestler and former NFL defensive tackle is a four-time WWE world champion and has headlined four consecutive Wrestlemanias.
But when the father of three learned his leukemia had returned in 2018, about 11 years after first conquering it, he knew this fight wasn’t one he could, or even wanted to, tackle on his own.
“I wanted to let people know what was going on,” said Anoai, 34, who shared his diagnosis on the Oct. 22, 2018 episode of “Raw.” “If this was a story that could help somebody or inspire somebody, or give them a shred of hope if they were in the same situation, that would be a lot better than keeping it in my gut with my family like I did before.”
A fight for his life
Anoai was first diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia, or CML, at age 22, when his wife was pregnant with their first child. CML is a rare form of leukemia that begins in the bone marrow and spreads to the blood, where it triggers an overproduction of immature white blood cells, according to the American Cancer Society. While the cause is unknown, CML is most common in adults but can occur in children as well. It can be diagnosed with simple blood tests.
CML has three stages: chronic, acute, and blast. During the chronic stage, standard oral drugs control the disease well and individuals are usually asymptomatic. The number of immature white blood cells increases with the next two phases, and so do symptoms.
As a young, healthy football player, Anoai said the initial diagnosis felt like “a death sentence.”
“I didn’t believe it,” he said. “I went into major shock, and my mom took on the brunt of it.”
Left untreated, CML can carry over to the other organs of the body and prevent them from functioning normally.
Standard medications for CML helped Anoai beat the disease in both instances, but the battle wasn’t easy.
“I’m used to being banged up and sore, but this was different,” he said. “There was nothing in me that was allowing me to kick out of that feeling of pain — I couldn’t push through it.”
A new perspective and purpose
Now that he’s in remission again, Anoai said he has more gratitude for the little things, like being able to move freely without physical pain.
Every day, he listens to his body, and prioritizes his physical fitness and nutrition.
“It’s like putting pennies in the piggy bank every day,” he said. “It’s compounded interest … that’s what I have to constantly remind myself of. CML is going to be with me for the rest of my life. I’m gonna be on these medications, so I have to do something every day to make myself better and healthier. It’s just constant work.”
He wants to use his platform as a celebrity to raise awareness about the importance of receiving an early diagnosis. Undergoing an annual physical with blood labs can help doctors detect blood abnormalities that may point to CML, he noted. “Go the extra step and get the blood labs. That way, you can live a long and healthy life,” he said.
Anoai takes pride in being a father, a husband, a provider, and a professional athlete and entertainer, but he said that his battle with leukemia has changed his perspective on success.
“Hopefully my story can continue to help others, as long as God continues to keep me healthy and keep breath in my lungs,” he said. “If I can help somebody in their struggle, I have been successful in my life.”