Cancer and Covid
- Pro wrestler Roman Reigns is starting the new year off with a positive Covid-19 test, which sidelined him from Saturday’s “Day 1” WWE event.
- Testing positive for Covid is not good news for anyone, but it is especially worrisome for immunocompromised people like Reigns. He is in remission after fighting an incurable blood cancer, chronic myeloid leukaemia, or CML.
- The Covid vaccine is also likely to be less effective in patients with blood cancer. However, those who are able to get the vaccine should still get it.
Testing positive for Covid is not good news for anyone, but it is especially worrisome for immunocompromised people like Leati Joseph Anoaʻi, also known as Reigns. He is in remission after fighting an incurable blood cancer, chronic myeloid leukemia, or CML.Read More
I yearn to perform tonight at #WWEDay1 to defend my Universal Championship. However, unfortunately, earlier today I tested positive for COVID-19. Due to the proper protocols I am unable to compete as originally scheduled. I look forward to returning to action as soon as possible.
— Roman Reigns (@WWERomanReigns) January 1, 2022
Roman Reigns’ CML Battle
It was October 2018 when Roman Reigns announced to the world that he had been diagnosed with CML, a treatable but incurable form of blood cancer.
He made his triumphant return to the WWE spotlight on Feb. 25, 2019, when he shared that he was in remission. However, in the days following his return to the wrestling ring, WWE released a documentary about Reigns and his battle with cancer; it was revealed that he had been battling CML for more than a decade. He was diagnosed in his early 20s while pursuing a football career.
In an interview with Leukaemia Care UK, he shares what it is really like living with CML: “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,” he adds. “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.”
CML is caused by something called the Philadelphia chromosome, a genetic abnormality discovered in those who suffer from CML in a lab in Philadelphia, Pa.
“Having CML is like having your boiler in your house on in the summer. When it’s hot, the boiler should shut off, the thermostat should work, and you shouldn’t have any heat,” Dr. Richard Stone, director of translational research for the Adult Leukemia Program at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, tells SurvivorNet.
“Just like if you’re not infected, your white cells should be normal, they shouldn’t go up, but if the white cells are going up for no darn good reason you probably have a broken thermostat in your white cells, and that’s what the Philadelphia chromosome is.”
The increased understanding of how that chromosome works has led to multiple breakthroughs in the treatment of CML over the last two decades.
“If you walk in the door with CML today, you have the same natural history as a person the same age as you that doesn’t have CML,” Dr. Stone says. “In other words, if it’s treated correctly, you don’t die of CML, you don’t need a stem cell transplant — so it’s a pretty, exciting situation.”
Most CML patients, like Roman Reigns, will likely take tyrosine kinase inhibitors, or TKIs, in order to treat their cancer.
TKIs are a type of targeted therapy that comes in pill form and is taken orally. A targeted therapy identifies and attacks specific types of cancer cells while causing less damage to normal cells, according to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. In CML patients, TKIs target the abnormal BCR-ABL1 protein that causes uncontrolled CML cell growth and block its function, causing the CML cells to die.
“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,” he adds. “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 treatment, like most cancer treatments, can cause side effects, such as muscle cramps, pain and fatigue. Reigns has disclosed that his treatment regimen has caused arthritis, and has offered insight about the daily affects the pills 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,” Roman Reigns says. “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.”
Blood Cancer and Covid
Immunocompromised people, such as those who have or have had cancer, are more susceptible to Covid. As a cancer patient or survivor, how can you protect yourself from this virus that is still mutating and infecting thousands every day?
Here is the most important thing: If you have not done so already, get your Covid shot. (And before you ask, yes, all Covid vaccines are safe for cancer patients and survivors.) If you have received your shot, make sure you get your booster shot.
But for blood cancer, patients, there is a bit of a catch. The UK Coronavirus Cancer Monitoring Project (UKCCMP) found that people with blood cancer have a 57% increased risk of developing a severe case if they contract Covid-19, whereas breast cancer patients were found to have the lower risk among all cancers.
The Covid vaccine is also likely to be less effective in patients with blood cancer, like Roman Reigns. However, those who are able to get the vaccine should still get it. Dr. Thomas Martin, a hematologist-oncologist at the University of California San Francisco, recommends blood cancer patients follow these specific precautions after getting the vaccine:
- Vaccinated patients undergoing therapy should still avoid large crowds
- Masks and social distancing are also still needed when in public
- Double mask during plane travel and avoid flights longer than six hours
- Vaccinated patients receiving blood cancer therapy should continue to avoid restaurants or socializing with a lot of people
According to Dr. Nina Shah, a hematologist at the University of California San Francisco, it is critical that cancer patients going through active treatment get this booster.
If you are hesitant about the vaccine, findings presented at the annual European Society for Medical Oncology conference, or ESMO Congress 2021, the leading professional society for medical oncology, revealed through multiple studies that cancer patients have “an appropriate, protective immune response to vaccination without experiencing any more side-effects than the general population.”
The findings discussed at the conference “offer conclusive evidence that while being largely effective, anti-COVID vaccination is just as safe for people with cancer as it is for the general population,” according to Dr. Luis Castelo-Branco, a medical oncologist in the ESMO Scientific and Medical Division.
Contributing: SurvivorNet staff