Samuel Tabuatamata, Rugby and Leukaemia: A Story of Survival

Sam Tabuatamata is more than just an exceptional rugby player. He’s smart, hardworking, driven and determined. Selected by the New South Wales Waratahs and Fiji Rugby Union, he’s worked long and hard for his spot in each of those teams. It hasn’t been an easy road, and there’s one particular challenge that sets him apart: early this year he was diagnosed with stage one chronic myelomonocytic leukaemia. Sam’s story is one of purpose, bravery and survival. At the end of a roller-coaster year, Sam sits with me to share his story, with one aim in mind – to encourage people who are struggling to hang on to whatever hope they have, because “when one door closes – another one opens.” I am honoured to share Sam’s story. 

Tell us about yourself, who you are and how you began playing rugby?

My name is Sam Tabuatamata, I was born in Suva, Fiji in 1996 and moved to Sydney, Australia in 2004 with my parents. I’m from Nukuni, Ono-i-Lau in Fiji.

I work as a roofer at the moment, but I also play rugby union. I started playing when I was 9 or 10 years old for a club in Rockdale, then rugby league for Arncliffe Scots.

In year 7, I got an opportunity to go to Scots College, a good high school that my parents were fortunate enough to get me into. At the time I didn’t know what Scots was – I thought it was just some fancy high school that I needed to go to because my parents were forcing me to. Mind you, I was still a fresh little Fijian boy who barely knew English, but I went for it anyway.

How did Scots College affect your rugby aspirations?

After I started, I soon found out it was a pretty good school if you want to become a professional rugby player. In year 7 I tried out and didn’t make the first team for my age group. From year 7 to year 9 or 10, I always played in the lower grades.

By the time I reached year 12, so many people told me I wasn’t going to make the first 15 team because I’d been trying for so long. It was pretty discouraging but I thought to myself, “I’ll just keep trying, it’s my last year and if I don’t get through then at least I tried.”

Finally the footy season came around, and when the time came for the team to be named, we all sat there… waiting. They finally got to the 13 outside-centre position, and they called my name. It was probably the best moment of my life.

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It took me three years of pure hard work to get there. I sacrificed going to Fiji with my family for holidays and sometimes I’d just go for short stays. People would ask me why I’d only go for a week or two, it was because I wanted to come back and start working again. While everyone was out celebrating Christmas or the New Year, I wanted to be working and doing something to better my skills.

I think if people find something they want to do for the rest of their life, they’d sacrifice and do anything to get to where they want to be, and I guess that’s what I did.

How did making that team affect you?

When I finished high school I moved to rugby league and played SG Ball for a bit. Then I went back to rugby union and played for a year in 2014. At the end of that year I was fortunate enough to train with the Gen Blue Under 20’s squad which is under the New South Wales Waratahs rugby team. I was really stoked that this was happening, after all my hard work. A lot of people were shocked but I didn’t really care – that’s just their opinion.

December of that year came around and my family went to Fiji, but I decided to stay and continue working and training. In January things were going well, but in early February I injured and dislocated my shoulder, and was sent to have a MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan.

How did this injury impact you? 

When I went in for the scan, I was told to wait after the procedure to go back in and see my Doctor. When I went back in my Doctor was smiling, going through my scans, and doing her thing on the computer. Then all of a sudden her smile turned into a pale look and she became silent.

She started zooming into on my scan and asked me, “Have you been feeling tired or dizzy at all? I don’t want to jump to conclusions, but you might be very, very sick.” I asked, “what kind of sickness? A fever? A cold?” and she said, “no, you’ve got a lot of bone marrow in your right shoulder.”

I had no idea what bone marrow was, so I asked her to explain in simple English. She began to say that I might have a blood disease. There I was thinking, “I’m already injured, I’m already gone for the season, and now you’re telling me this?” I asked her what I needed to do next, and she asked me for my Mum’s number. That’s when I started to think… “this can’t be good”.

So she called my Mum, and a week later, a hematologist called me and asked me to come in.  It hadn’t really hit me at this point because even with all this information I still didn’t understand what was going on. When I met my hematologist, Doctor Badoux, he explained that he had my MRI scan, and it looked like I had a lot of bone marrow. “But the good news is that we might’ve caught it early – we just need to do more tests,” he said.

I didn’t know what this all meant, so I asked him to take a step back and explain everything to me. He told me that we needed to take some bone marrow out of my back as part of a biopsy – which is probably the most painful thing I’ve ever done in my life – just to see if I had a disease.

After the biopsy, I had to go in for my results. I went in on my own with an open mind. I thought, “if he tells me I’m sick, then I’m sick. So be it.” I went in, and there Doctor Badoux sat holding a big folder with all my information in it. He didn’t really say it straight, he just said that my tests had come back in and, “I’m really sorry but you have chronic myelomonocytic leukaemia.” I didn’t know what to think aside from, “how bad could it be?” I’d never read about leukaemia so I didn’t know what it was. He gave me books with information on the different pills I could take.

When I walked out, that’s when it hit me. I started to think… “I’m really sick. I’m on a death bed.”

After my appointment, I sat at Kogarah train station thinking, “there’s only two ways you can look at these kinds of things. It’s either you try and beat it and die trying, or just give up.” I thought, “f**k it, I’m going to try because I have nothing to lose.”

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How did you manage to tell your parents?

I didn’t know how to tell them, so I told them with a smile. My mum probably took it the worst, and my dad said, “oh okay… we pray”. He didn’t show any emotion and all he wanted to know was what we could do, and what I wanted to do, so he could support me. I didn’t know what I wanted, because I saw all these tablets and each description kept telling me that I’d be knocked off my feet for a long time. I had to take blood tests every week, and slowly it all began to hit me. I started to realise what this meant and how it had changed my life… just like that.

When the reality of your diagnosis began to settle in, how did you feel?

When you’re a rugby player, you think you’re invincible. You’re fit, you’re healthy and then it all gets taken away from you. All I could think about was all the hard work I had put into rugby, which turned into nothing. I was thinking, “what a waste of time. I put so much time and effort into it and it was taken away in an instant.” In a way I was also thankful that I was injured, because otherwise I would’ve found out much later, and it would’ve been way too late for me.

So where to from there? How did you begin to take steps forward?

It came to the day where I had to choose what type of medication to take. They were trialling a new pill called Tasigna, which I chose. It was probably the worst thing I’ve ever gone through – taking that medication. Because it’s a new pill, they hadn’t ironed out the side effects. So imagine you’re sick, lying in bed – times that by 10. That’s how it felt to be on Tasigna. Sometimes I’d just wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. You also have constant diarrhoea, all week and all day. Usually I’m 86kgs and the lightest I went down to was 76kgs.

Where did this experience leave your rugby career?

This is the funny part. So trials for the Fiji Under 20’s came up, and I felt like I still had strength in me. I could still run around even though I was on these pills. I asked my Doctor if I could go to Fiji and try out, and he begged me not to go. I told him I was going anyway.

I went to Fiji for the trials, and the first challenge was a 1.2km test for fitness. The night before I was completely knocked off my feet, and so I decided not to take the pills. I said to myself that if I wanted to play rugby, I’m not taking them anymore. I had diarrhoea and was dehydrated – I didn’t sleep until about 5am. My Aunty – you know how Fijians are with their herbal medicine – she said she had a herbal medicine I could get on, and I was like, “yes please, give that to me right now instead of these pills that are killing me.”

When I arrived at the test the next day, I looked so skinny and sick that they asked me, “do you even play rugby?” I did the trial anyway, and had nothing left in me afterwards.

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So how did you go? How did your body feel after the test?

It’s 1.2km and I think you’re supposed to finish it under 6 minutes, and if you’re a back under 5:30 minutes. I got there at 5 minutes and 6 seconds.

Another reason I decided to stop taking those pills was because I knew I had to play a game in a few days from the test. From the day I stopped I wanted to eat a whole cow to try to put on as much weight as I could. That and the herbal medicine – I forget what it’s called, but it’s specific for blood sicknesses – I was drinking it, eating a lot and feeling great. I kept thinking I wasn’t sick anymore.

Did the Fiji Rugby Union (FRU) know about your diagnosis?

We had to have blood tests and they were aware that I was sick. I was in camp for a week after I told them about my diagnosis. The first few days I was allowed to do everything, then after the third day they asked me to slow down and not have any contact with other players, and just do the fitness part of it.

Then Friday came where they break camp for the week. They got me into a room with all the medical staff, coaches and representatives of FRU, and they said, “listen Sam, we’re aware of your condition, and we just can’t take the risk of taking you to Portugal with us. We’d love to, but I’m sorry… this is where it all ends for you. This is where we tell you to pack your bags and go back home.”

They were cool about it, and I knew it was fair enough. They even gave me a jersey. The worst part was having to sit in front of the whole team to tell them the news. They didn’t know the depth of it, all they knew was that I had to leave because of the leukaemia. I knew they felt bad for me, but I don’t really know what they thought because I was so numb to it. My heart just broke completely.

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How well were you able to recover after the trials?

I was there for another two or three weeks before coming back home, and  that’s when I went in to see my Doctor. I didn’t want to go back on the pills but my Mum forced me to go and see him again. She said, “please… we don’t want to lose you yet. Please go back to the doctor and do something about it.”

I finally went to the Doctor, and refused to take the same pills. He understood and asked me to start with a blood test so he could see where my health was at. When I was first diagnosed, I was at stage one and by July I was on the verge of stage two, so it was really bad, and it was kind of my fault, to be honest.

By then, I knew I had no other choice and that I had to do something different. My Doctor said he’d put me on another pill – Imatanib – an older version of Tasigna. I’m on that at the moment and I only have to take it once a day. Thankfully, there aren’t any side effects.

On that day, my Doctor asked me not to work and not to take part in any type of sport. That was the most depressing part because it was so boring. I felt like I had nothing. I also became pretty depressed because all I could do was just sit there. I’d get really moody sometimes too. There were times when I couldn’t help myself and I’d go for a run, just to do something with myself.

How did your body respond to these new pills?

I began to take the new pills and slowly started to get better. My Doctor told me I’d be lucky if  I could get back into training by November. I set a goal that November would be when I’d get rid of this disease. I really wanted to get my spleen reduced by then. Thankfully, it was August 28 when he cleared me to go back to training. I hit the ground running. I was like a kid in candy shop – it was the happiest day of my life.

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Where did this leave your rugby? Did you feel like there was any hope?

A few weeks later, I got announced in the team again for the Gen Blues Under 20’s squad. I felt like I had been given a second chance at life, and I couldn’t believe it. When I saw my name I thought it was fake, that it couldn’t be real because I hadn’t touched a ball once this year. I proved myself again, and I couldn’t believe what a mad rollercoaster of a year I’d had. I hit very low at some points and on the outside I’d look happy, but inside it was different. Now I’m finally going back up.

From August to November, my blood results had gone from a stage two all the way back to normal. I was starting to love my Doctor again. He said, “Sam everything looks great. You went from 100 to 9, 8, 7. You’re doing well.”

Do you feel you’re back to full strength now? How has the diagnosis affected you as a rugby player, and as a person?

I’m so happy after everything I’ve been through. After clearance, I went back into it, training and training to try and get back to where I was. It’s never going to be the same, but now I have a mental edge – the never quit mentality that I never could’ve had otherwise. There are no regrets to life anymore. I have more appreciation. Some people come to me and they complain about life, and I just say, “be happy that you’re here right now. Be happy because you never know when it could be taken away from you.”

I think that was God telling me to slow down in my life. Before the diagnosis, I was like every other young rugby player – going out on the weekends from a Thursday to early morning on Sunday. I’d usually be drunk on a Sunday morning. I thought that was normal, but looking back now I can see where I was headed – to a dead-end career in rugby.

If I never had that injury, I’d probably be on my deathbed right now. I know I have more of a purpose to life than just rugby. I’ve just gotta find out what that bigger purpose is.

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What do you hope to achieve by sharing your story?

I want to encourage young people who are struggling to find motivation. Even if this helps one person, I’d be stoked.

I was blind, but my diagnosis has opened my eyes. I want to tell people that it’s so important to read up on leukaemia because there are side effects that you can see, and by noticing them you can possibly save a life.

What would you say to someone in a similar situation?

Just pray. It’s alright to be scared. I was scared. People have a lot of motivational quotes to say but I don’t have one. My best advice is to pray, because that’s what got me through the most depressing days of having leukaemia. That’s what my parents taught me – that if I’m ever feeling really low and on the verge of feeling like I have no worth in this world – just pray. Because ultimately God is the best person to talk to about any of your problems, so just pray about whatever situation you’re in right now. It might not be the ideal situation, but God could be saying, “change your path, or, I’ve got something better for you.” Because when one door closes, another one opens.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Going through this kind of thing, you see there’s more to life. I just appreciate every day that comes. I take things one day at a time. It’s been a cool year.

At the same time, the biggest enemy is the man in the mirror. He or she can be your biggest enemy and your best friend. Keep fighting and have a bit of hope. Hold on to that little bit of hope you have, because that might take you out of darkness. If you’re going through problems, try and figure out what you love doing and stick to that. Even if it’s as simple as going for a walk around the block – just do whatever it is that’s an escape for you.

Now I can see why I went through all that I did. When people say that someone has cancer or leukaemia, now I can understand why that sick person is always happy – they are the happiest people. Why? It’s because they appreciate everything just a little more.

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I’d like to thank Sam for sharing his powerful story with us. Sam, we’re all looking forward to what the future has for you – you will live long, and for most of your days you will continue to shine and make us proud. If this story has encouraged, motivated or inspired you, please leave a message or comment on our Facebook page for Sam to read. 

talanoa

Arieta Tora Rika is a writer, Pacific storyteller, and Talanoa's Founder. With over 10 years of experience in social impact and non-profit communications across Australia and the Pacific, Arieta has dedicated her career to writing for positive change in vulnerable communities. She is currently a full-time Communications Manager for The Salvation Army Aged Care Plus, part-time student, and sometimes storyteller and cultural advisor for Talanoa.

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