Robin Roberts: A Profile in Courage

The 'GMA' anchor and cancer survivor reveals her 10 'health heroes.'

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on March 31, 2015
9 min read

''Aahh! ABBA!'' Robin Roberts exclaims. She takes a spin around the floor and waves her arms as the opening bars of ''Dancing Queen'' fill the air.

What a difference 2 and a half years makes. That's when ABC's Good Morning America anchor was in isolation at New York City's Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Her 5-foot-10-inch frame was down to a gaunt 115 pounds as she fought her way back from high-dose chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant. Those treatments were the only option for curing myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), in which the body's bone marrow doesn’t make enough healthy blood cells.

Roberts was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007. She acknowledges that was a blow. ''But breast cancer, you kinda know what that is, and you know people who've gone through it,'' she says.

The MDS diagnosis, which came in 2012, was much harder. ''I had never heard of it. I didn't know anyone who had MDS.''

Without fully functional red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets, people with MDS are vulnerable to anemia, infections, and uncontrolled bleeding. In nearly 1 in 3 cases -- especially in cases of ''secondary MDS,'' which follows chemotherapy or radiation for cancer, as Roberts' did -- MDS progresses to acute myeloid leukemia. But Roberts heartily disagrees with those who refer to it as ''pre-leukemia.'' ''There's nothing 'pre' about it. It's full on!''

Today, she bubbles over with good health, goofing around in a photo studio in midtown Manhattan. She cheerfully hefts prop numbers ''1'' and ''0'' in the air to celebrate WebMD Magazine's 10th anniversary, displaying sculpted delts and triceps that even Michelle Obama might envy. An hour later, having changed from a fitted blue dress into jeans and a rust-colored quilted jacket (''you'll get more out of me this way,'' she promises), Roberts curls up on a couch to talk about her top 10 ''health heroes'' -- the people and organizations who helped her through her health battles.

''I get weepy when I think about Dr. Giralt,'' she says, referring to Sergio Giralt, MD, chief of the adult bone marrow transplantation service at Memorial Sloan Kettering. ''I really appreciate that he asked me if I would be a part of a clinical trial. There's a reason why, as a black woman, you're told -- which is hard to hear -- that you're less likely to get cancer but more likely to die from it. There are not as many people making themselves available, there's just not as much research being done.''

Roberts says she and Giralt had ''our moment'' when he was inserting the syringe containing bone marrow stem cells donated by her sister, Sally-Ann. ''I could see his eyes over his mask and his mouth moving, and he later told me he was praying. He had spent countless hours with me and my sister and her stem cells, almost like a mad scientist, trying to figure out what would give me the best chance of survival.''

A chance television appearance led Roberts to choose Gail J. Roboz, MD, director of the leukemia program at Weill Medical College of Cornell University and the New York-Presbyterian Hospital, as her hematologist-oncologist. ''I was in my hospital room for my first day of chemotherapy,'' she recalls. ''That was the day I announced I had MDS, and the networks were running the story, and this doctor pops up and she explains my case better than anyone else ever had. The doctor in the room left and the nurse saw me looking at the TV, and she said, 'You want her number?' I called her on my way home from treatment.''

After Roberts' MDS diagnosis, all three of her older siblings got tested to find out if their bone marrow matched Robin's so they could donate stem cells. ''I just assumed that if you have a sibling, it's going to be automatic that they're a match,'' Roberts says. ''But then you find out it's only 30% of the time that a family member is an actual match.''

Brother Lawrence was not a match. Sister Dorothy was not a match. The family's hope rested with Sally-Ann. ''She kept calling me saying, 'Do you have my results?' And the answer was always no,'' Roberts recalls. ''So then I called her. I was just having a regular conversation with her and then at the end I said, 'By the way, Sally-Ann, you're a match!' In the news business, that's called burying the lead.''

Sally-Ann and Dorothy flew to New York to be with Roberts on the day of her transplant. ''We were playing gospel music. My girlfriend Amber was there, friends and colleagues who are family, like Sam Champion and Diane Sawyer. Dr. Giralt's favorite line is, 'Keep it boring.' He opened the door and he said, 'This isn't boring!' I told him, 'My family doesn't do boring!' It was a room full of love and joy. It was in essence my rebirth.''

Roberts' relationship with her partner, massage therapist Amber Laign, has been tested by adversity from the beginning. When they met in 2004, Roberts was grieving for her father, Lawrence Roberts Sr., a pilot with the Tuskegee Airmen and an Air Force colonel who had passed away unexpectedly just months before.

''A month after we met, Hurricane Katrina wiped out my hometown,'' says Roberts, who grew up in Pass Christian, Miss., a town devastated by Katrina in 2005. ''A couple of years after that, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. People feel like if you're going through cancer and you have a husband, a girlfriend, a partner, it's going to bring you closer. But many times I've heard about partners who don't stick around. It's wonderful to have a partner in my life who has always risen to the occasion.''

During Roberts' MDS treatment, Laign protected her from seeing the stress she herself felt. ''She was so good about not letting anybody come in my room who wasn't positive, including herself. I found out later that there was a crying room outside,'' Roberts says.

When people whose partners are going through a life-threatening diagnosis ask Laign what to do, Roberts says her partner has a simple answer: ''She tells them to take care of themselves. They have to have something that's just for them and their own support system. When I was diagnosed with MDS, and my friends asked what they could do for me, I said, 'I'm in the hospital -- they're taking care of me. Worry about Amber.'''

Those friends took Roberts' request to heart.

''They had their own little network going. There was almost a calendar: 'Lois Ann and Cathy are flying in this weekend, when can you come?' I'd look up and a new friend would be there. They did it all on their own, without involving me or making Amber worry about anything,'' Roberts says.

Roberts' nurses were there for her at her lowest points. One night post-transplant, she says, ''I was convinced I was slipping away. It was one of those rare moments when I had gotten everybody out of the room for the night. I'm tired, I miss my mom, I'm sick, I can't eat.'' Roberts' voice breaks at the memory.

''And then I heard a voice saying my name over and over again. There was a nurse named Jenny, pleading with me not to slip away. I don't know what would have happened if she wasn't there.''

Jenny stands out in her memory, but Roberts praises all the nurses who cared for her. ''They're on the front lines, Honey! They know what's working and what's not working before anyone else.''

After her transplant, Roberts spent an agonizing month in isolation in the hospital as Sally-Ann's stem cells took up residence in her bone marrow and her immune system slowly rebuilt. She was itching to escape her hospital room to walk, but if her daily blood counts weren't good, she had to remain confined.

''My nurses would draw my blood at 5 each morning, but the new numbers wouldn't be posted until later. They were so cool -- if they felt the numbers would be down, they'd say, 'Look, we haven't posted them yet, you better get out of the room now and walk under your old numbers.' I'd be like, 'Thank you!' And I'd scurry out of there.''

Diane Sawyer, at the time the anchor of ABC World News, ''should have been a doctor,'' Roberts declares.

She was the first colleague to learn about Roberts' MDS. ''I didn't want to tell anybody outside the family until I had a good grip on it,'' she says. ''But then I saw her randomly at a luncheon, and I was overwhelmed. I said, 'I have to talk to you; I'm ill again. I'll give you a call later.'''

Roberts had barely stepped into her car when her cell phone rang. ''She said, 'Tell me now.''' Roberts did, and Sawyer swung into action. ''She called doctors all over the world for me.''

When it came time to break the news to her bosses at ABC, Roberts went in with her friend Richard Besser, MD, ABC News' chief medical correspondent. ''He not only was able to talk to me in terms I could understand, he could talk to them. We were just like this little stealth team. It was good to have people who truly understood, who were also connected with my work.''

''My mama always said, 'Make your mess your message,''' Roberts says. It’s a lesson she shares in her most recent book, Everybody's Got Something. ''When you're going through a mess, find the message in it not just for yourself, but for other people.''

Roberts found that message in Be the Match, the national registry for bone marrow transplantation. ''I didn't know that there were more than 100 illnesses that could potentially be cured by a bone marrow transplant,'' she says. ''So when I made the announcement about my disease, I knew there was going to be an outcry, and I was partnered with Be the Match to channel that. 'You want to know what you can do to help? Join Be the Match!'''

In the months after Roberts' announcement, more than 44,000 people joined the registry.

Roberts' father died in 2004, 3 years before she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her mother, Lucimarian Roberts, passed away just a month before her daughter's stem cell transplant.

''My parents instilled in me so many values that have helped me in my battles. We used to call it the three Ds: discipline, determination, and 'da Lord.' I remember heading out in high school when I thought I was all that and a bag of chips, and my mama would yell, 'Robin, you know right from wrong!' When I was out with friends and 'wrong' was about to happen, I'd hear her again. 'Guys, I can't do this. I'm out.'''

After her transplant, Roberts was off the air for 6 months, returning to a jubilant welcome in February 2013. ''Six months. In morning television, that's an eternity. And they waited for me,'' she says, tears welling up. ''They didn't forget me, and you don't take that for granted. There isn't a day that someone hasn't said, 'I prayed for you.'

''When I came back, oh gosh, it was so wonderful. There was a great crowd outside, people with signs, people who called in sick that day and stayed home to watch. And I feel the love.''

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