Robin Roberts: 'I'm Stronger Than I Thought I Was"

PARADE Published: March 31, 2013
After facing her fears over a life-threatening illness, the Good Morning America anchor is back and better than ever. Watch video of Roberts's joyous first day back on the show, then read her PARADE cover story below.

As the voice of James Brown singing “I Feel Good” bounces off the walls of a Manhattan photo studio, Robin Roberts begins dancing exuberantly, a broad smile on her face. It’s been a week since the Good Morning America anchor returned to work amid great fanfare after five months of grueling medical treatments, and she is relishing a sense of normalcy. On this morning’s show, she was treated simply like one of the gang; her illness was not mentioned. “I just walked in,” she says, “and even the members of the crew were like, ‘All right. Now we’re back.’”

Known for her upbeat personality, Roberts, 52, has had a physically and emotionally excruciating year. Diagnosed with a life-threatening blood disease, she endured chemotherapy, a bone marrow transplant, and months in the hospital and at home in virtual isolation to protect her fragile immune system. In the midst of this battle, her beloved mother, Lucimarian, died of complications from a stroke. Roberts says she now feels her mother’s presence with her. “Yesterday was a rainy day, and when the sun came through, I thought, ‘That’s Mom.’”

Ever resilient, Roberts has come through her ordeal (“really terrible, hard, yucky days I never want to relive or think about again”) with gratitude toward her siblings, her friends, her medical team, and the fans who showered her with prayers. “I have been mulling over how much more I have learned about myself through sorrow than through joy,” she says. “I’m a better, stronger, more complete person because of these trials and tribulations.”

Back at work with her GMA colleagues (from left) Josh Elliott, Sam Champion, Lara Spencer, and George Stephanopoulos on Feb. 20.
Her challenges began in 2007 when she was treated for an aggressive form of breast cancer. Five years later, she felt bone-wearying exhaustion while covering the Oscars. After undergoing tests, she pressed her doctor on the phone for the results. “He went, ‘You really need to come in,’” she recalls, “and I said, ‘Just give me an idea of what it could possibly be.’ That’s when he said myelodysplastic syndrome, MDS. I kept for the longest time the piece of paper where I first spelled it out.” MDS is a rare and potentially fatal group of diseases affecting the blood and bone marrow; in severe instances it can transform into leukemia. Roberts’s case was likely caused by her earlier cancer treatment. Reeling, she called ABC medical correspondent Dr. Richard Besser. “I needed someone to help me understand what the heck was going on,” she says. “He kind of talked me off the ledge.” A few days later, Roberts ran into her good friend Diane Sawyer. “I just blurted it out. The next thing I know, she’s calling every specialist in the world.” Roberts’s eyes well with tears. “She puts her life on hold when someone close to her is going through something like this.”

Together, Sawyer and Besser researched treatments and doctors while keeping Roberts’s illness a secret at ABC News for nearly six weeks. “We were like a little tiger team, the three of us,” says Besser. “People wondered, why is Diane in Rich’s office with the door closed?” Roberts and Besser then interviewed doctors together: He vetted the medical aspects while she sought an emotional comfort level. She chose Dr. Sergio Giralt, a specialist in bone marrow transplants at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and Dr. Gail Roboz, a leukemia specialist at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center. The three of them have now spent so much time together that they share a wisecracking rapport.

With her return to 'Good Morning America,' Robin Roberts celebrates the doctors, family, and friends who helped get her there.
One of the diciest parts of Roberts’s treatment was finding a bone marrow match. The best chance for a perfect match is often within the same ethnicity or race, and there are relatively few African-Americans in the donor registry. There’s also only a one-in-four chance that a sibling—Roberts has three: Dorothy, a social worker; Sally-Ann, an anchor at WWL-TV in New Orleans; and Butch, a high school teacher and basketball coach—will be a match. It was an edge-of-the-seat moment, but a swab test revealed that “Robin had a perfect donor,” says Dr. Giralt. “Sally-Ann was a 10 out of 10 match. There’s no substitute for that.”

Sally-Ann Roberts remembers “screaming” with joy when Robin phoned with the news, but she was startled by her sister’s next remark. “Robin said, ‘Do you want to do this?’ I said, ‘Why would you ask me that?’ I was really surprised at how difficult it was for her to be the one in need.

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