Reigns — who announced earlier this year that his cancer is again in remission — said the WWE community's support felt like a "security blanket"

By Lindsay Kimble
April 04, 2019 11:36 AM

Though he may be a “polarizing character” in the ring, the WWE community’s affection for Roman Reigns was never more clear than when he announced the return of his Leukemia last fall.

Reigns — whose real name is Leati Joseph Anoaʻi — revealed that he was diagnosed with cancer in October, simultaneously giving up his championship title and taking a leave of absence from WWE.

At the time, he told the crowd during an episode of WWE Raw, “I’m not going to lie, I’ll take every prayer you can send my way but I’m not looking for sympathy, I’m not looking for you to feel bad for me because I have faith.”

And prayers he got — and then some.

“I was blown away,” Reigns, 33, tells PEOPLE ahead of WrestleMania 35. “I have kind of been a polarizing character in our storylines and our industry, and our fans are passionate. They are passionate and vocal and will let you know what they are feeling and thinking, so I was nervous because this was something I kept with just me and my family for years.”

Continues Reigns, “Pretty much a decade of just something that only my closest relative and friends knew, to now telling the whole world. It really made me uncomfortable.”

Reigns, however, was met with an outpouring of support — which he called a “huge blessing.”

“Even in this crazy world of social media and negativity, and opinions and critiques, everybody dropped that. They dropped their opinion whether it was bad, good or indifferent,” he says. “They were just trying to help out, and the fact that everybody rallied behind me and gave me that support, I’ll never be able to say thank you enough.”

Added Reigns, “I am super grateful to them.”

Reigns was first diagnosed with cancer in 2008 when he was 22. At the time, Reigns — a former college football star at Georgia Tech — was playing in the CFL and had just welcomed his daughter, Joelle Anoa’i. That first battle, he says, was “a lot different.”

“I didn’t really have anybody,” he explains. “I didn’t think it was anybody’s fault, I just had my wife [Galina Becker] — who was pregnant at the time. My mom, just the kind of mother she is, she was my rock, she was my support system doing all the worrying and all the praying and it felt like I was a little bit on an island.”

Admitting that he was scared, Reigns calls the time period “pretty shocking.” He explains, “It was a crazy transition to be a young man at 21, 22 with all the responsibilities being thrown on my shoulders.”

Roman Reigns

Thankfully, Reigns cancer went into hematologic remission — a normal, complete blood cell count — about a year and a half after he was first diagnosed. Then, nearly two and a half years after the diagnosis, he reached molecular remission.

Learning he was healthy, Reigns says, brought its own challenges. He explains, “Unfortunately for me, it was a hard process. I felt I had huge asterisk next to my name. There were always questions like, ‘Is he okay?’ ”

That “type of energy” and the unknown, however, became a driving force for Reigns.

Reigns joined the WWE in 2010 and has racked up every single WWE major championship in the years since. He is the ninth WWE Grand Slam Champion.

The WWE schedule “isn’t easy,” Reigns admits, making the return of his cancer last year even more difficult to grasp. “This was just totally not on my radar,” he tells PEOPLE.

“I felt good, I was tired, but I was running one heck of a schedule,” he explains. “Little did I know, it was happening to me again and my body was reacting and my blood was changing.”

Still, after announcing he’d be stepping aside from the WWE to focus on his health, Reigns says he felt like “a huge security blanket wrapped around me.”

Roman Reigns
| Credit: Ron ElkmanSports Imagery/Getty

Four months later, in February, he told fans he was in remission once again.

“The moment I started feeling better, I started working out, getting back to training, trying to pull my mind away from being on the shelf — on the sideline and out of work essentially,” he says. “I just focused on my return and when the time was right, I knew my oncologist and the WWE doctors, they would give me the proper clearance to get back into the ring.”

And back in the ring he will be on Sunday, at WrestleMania 35.

“There is nowhere like WrestleMania when you have that many people — I think we’re at over 80,000 people again — that type of emotion from that many people is incredible,” he says. “For me, to be able to see all of that culminate after a full year of hard work, all these guys and girls that came together to put on this product for a full year, no offseason — it makes it even more special, and it’s pretty amazing.”