Virtually everyone has been affected by cancer in some way, whether they themselves have been diagnosed or have a loved one who has fought the battle against the disease. While some lifestyle or genetic variables can increase or decrease the likelihood of getting cancer at some point in your life, even people who are perfectly healthy one day can find themselves fighting for their lives the next after a diagnosis changes everything.
Such was the case for decorated BJJ black belt Joao Gabriel Rocha, who had qualified for and competed in ADCC in 2013. Rocha, who had earned his black belt earlier that year, was the runner-up in the 99kg division, losing only to Marcus “Buchecha” Almeida in the finals. Combined with all his other accomplishments from his first year as a black belt, it looked like a good omen for the year to come. At the time, Rocha had no way of knowing that the most important fight of his life was just around the corner.
In early 2014, Rocha recalls that he was hit by a friend while training, and the pain wouldn’t go away. “I decided to look for a doctor,” he says. “The first doctor I went to said he wasn’t able to treat me. He did say I had a tumor; he thought it was benign. I didn’t realize he could be talking about cancer at this time.”
Still concerned, Rocha kept searching until he found a doctor who revealed the bad news: he had cancer. “I had to have surgery and then chemo,” he says. “During treatment, the worst part was not being able to train jiu-jitsu. I had to stop everything and focus only on that, especially because your immune system can get really low during chemo.”
But Rocha, ever the type to focus on his goal, just pushed through the treatment with the most positive attitude possible. “I would just go to each chemo session without thinking too much, like I was doing my job,” he says. “I would celebrate any time the nurses could get my veins fast, just because chemo would make my veins disappear and sometimes they would try to get it for several hours.”
This intense treatment carried on for five months, during which Rocha was prohibited from training. The black belt who had won gold at Brazilian Nationals and silver at Worlds just the year before says he “felt just like a white belt” the first time he trained after his last chemotherapy session. “It was hard, but I was so happy for being able to step on the mats again. Going back to competitions was also hard. I lost at PanAms, but I was [runner-up] at Worlds once again.”
Rocha hasn’t wasted any opportunities to compete and has since had more impressive performances at big tournaments like ADCC and Worlds. Buchecha, however, has stopped him on his way to the top of the podium multiple times since their finals match at ADCC in 2013. So it was a bit symbolic when Rocha narrowly defeated Buchecha for the first time at BJJ Stars: Black Belt Edition and then got the news that he was officially cancer-free just a few days later.
The news was exciting, but not surprising for Rocha, who says that he’d been expecting that day since the day he was diagnosed. “Every year, I would do a lot of exams to see if the cancer was being controlled. So I had an idea that I was going to be told I was cancer free.”
Expected or not, the news was a huge development for an athlete who has seen first-hand what can happen when you never, ever give up. Now cancer-free and as hungry as ever for success, there’s no telling what (or who) Rocha will beat next.