This isn’t the first time I’ve written about my relationship with professional wrestling and my battle with pancreatic cancer, but this is a piece I’ve written and re-written more times than Cena’s kicked out at two. After watching her tag-team partner, Joey Ryan’s tear-inducing farewell after their final match together, I scrapped everything I’ve written before and decided instead to write Candice a fan letter…but leaving it open for the world to see.
First things first, congratulations on signing with the WWE. Although we live in a time where professional wrestlers can rule the world without ever stepping foot inside of the performance center, it warms my heart to know that I’ll be able to see you on TV every week, and that you’ll be able to spend more time with your husband now that you’re working for the same company.
I’m writing to you from a very personal, and very vulnerable place, so I’m apologizing in advance if this is a bit much. As someone who works in the film industry, I try to avoid falling into celebrity worship, but you’ve made a sincere and literal life-changing impact on me and I felt compelled to write a little more than just my usual “Candice LeRae saved my life” tweet that you may have seen floating online from time to time.
In 2013, I was diagnosed with a rare form of pancreatic cancer and was told there was a 4% chance of survival. I had recently moved to Cleveland less than six months previously and really hadn’t found my tribe, so to speak. For all intents and purposes, I was in a city that was still alien to me, and I was given a death sentence. I underwent an invasive and dangerous surgery in which they removed half of my pancreas, my entire spleen, 22 lymph nodes, and a tumor the size of a tennis ball. I lived in a hospital for longer than any human should ever have to, and there was still no guarantee that I was going to survive.
When I was finally allowed to go home, I was probably at the lowest point of my entire life. I had said farewell to my career as a world champion competitive baton twirler and tried to desperately accept my “new normal.” Shortly after I began recovery, they uncovered dangerous fluid collections and organs that weren’t doing what they were supposed to do. I was frequently experiencing pancreantitis (which, let me tell you, is 100% more excruciating than cancer), and all I wanted to do was give in to the disease and let it wash over me so the pain would stop and I could finally feel at peace.
My nephew Cash came to visit me after my second surgery. He’s a little blonde kid who once brought you and Johnny birthday presents at an AIW show, so you may know him. His gratitude doesn’t stop at his wrestling idols, and extends toward everyone in his life that means something to him. Visiting with people when you’re dying is…uncomfortable to say the least. Luckily, having an (at the time) seven year old around allows for conversations outside of “Hey BJ, how are you feeling?” Cash was coming into his own personality right around the time I got sick, and his biggest personality trait was that he loved professional wrestling. Like most inappropriate little boys, he immediately gravitated towards The Young Bucks. Being allowed to crotch chop and tell people to “suck it” without getting in trouble was a dream come true! A former wrestling fan myself (I fell off during the Attitude era. I couldn’t deal with the bra and panty matches), I was elated to see someone I love so much be brought so much joy from wrestling. Armed with an iPad and a heart full of optimism, he nestled next to me on my chair and pulled up The Young Bucks v. The World’s Cutest Tag Team. I’m sure you can tell where this is going.
Kids are intuitive little creatures. Cash pulled up the fight and audibly reacted alongside the audience. He chanted with the crowds, he yelped in delight with every passing move, and then, nearly 19 minutes into the match…you took a kick to the face. THE kick to the face heard round the world. The kick that established that “Candice LeRae is tougher than you!” The kick that stained your rainbow ring gear and bright hair with a crimson I hadn’t seen in a wrestling match since I was probably Cash’s age. And I swear to you, the entire world around me stopped. I watched as you clutched to your head, your arm shaking with shock. The commentators even muttered “Just get it over with,” hoping the Bucks would put you and Joey out of your misery.
But that didn’t happen.
You got up.
And you won the match.
I choked back tears as I promised myself never to cry in front of my niece and nephew while I was sick, and I felt every incision on my body burn from the pressure of tensing up. Tubes hanging out of my body, staples still fresh across my abdomen, I hugged my little buddy and thanked him for showing me the match. “You’re absolutely right, bud. Candice is super tough. And she doesn’t quit.” I must have watched the end of that match twenty times that weekend. Each time I kept seeing the visible pain and struggle you were enduring, and the remarkable strength and perseverance pushing you to get up and overcome. This wasn’t like when I was a kid and people were obviously trying to work the crowd. You were genuinely and sincerely pushing forward and achieving the impossible. You could have tapped out right then and there, and no one would have blamed you. But you didn’t. You kept fighting. And despite all odds, you won.
I can feel the irritation on scar tissue as I try to hold in tears just revisiting this moment.
That match reignited my love for professional wrestling and serves as a bonding agent that will forever connect my nephew and I. It’ll be a few more years before he can fully grasp the weight of what he did for me by showing me that match, but I can safely say that watching that match was also the spark that lit the flame inside of me that made me want to fight a disease that was destined to end me, no matter how bad things were going to get. With every set back, every bad doctor’s appointment, every surgery, every overnight hospital stay, I kept reminding myself that even if I was trembling in pain and fear, that I could not give up. I had to get up. I had to win.
Almost four years later, I’m still here. I’ve got one more year until they’ll declare me “cancer free,” but all signs are pointing to a full remission. All of my doctors and nurses constantly talk about me “defying the odds” and every time I’m transported back to the moment that made me believe in surviving the impossible. I made a movie called POWERBOMB this year that stars some of your friends. I made Britt Baker’s character wear your She-Ra shirt, my small attempt to permanently cement my gratitude for the impact you’ve had on my life.
I’ll miss seeing you perform live at AIW, and I’ll definitely miss seeing new matches of you and Joey Ryan, but knowing the rest of the world is going to get to see you perform the way your indie fanbase has been fortunate to experience, brings me an overwhelming sense of happiness that I don’t know if I’ll ever fully be able to process. You’re going to become an immediate household favorite, and watching you fight week to week is going to inspire women all across the globe to do the same.
Thank you, Candice.