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Robin Roberts: 'I'm Stronger Than I Thought I Was"
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.”
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.
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.” Robin, the baby of the family, admits that her sister is right. “I want to be the giver,” she says. “It’s been very hard for me but very enlightening to understand what it’s like to be on the receiving end.”
Sally-Ann injected herself for five days with a drug to induce the production of stem cells. She stresses that she had no side effects and adds, “I am terribly afraid of needles, but it wasn’t a problem.” She then gave blood at Sloan-Kettering in New York, where Robin was being treated; that night, the sisters got word that their mother was on her deathbed. (Their father, Lawrence Roberts, a retired air force colonel and a pilot with the World War II Tuskegee Airmen, died in 2004.) “I believe Mom held on until she was sure that Robin had what she needed,” Sally-Ann says. They flew home to Pass Christian, Miss., and arrived in time to say goodbye.
Sawyer and GMA weatherman Sam Champion were with her when she had the transplant. “I was being given life, and they were there,” she says. “People call them colleagues, and I’m like, ‘Colleagues don’t come to your room when you’re about to be reborn. These are the people that you love, who are close to you.’ They’re family to me.”
Champion and GMA coanchor Josh Elliott got permission to visit Roberts in the hospital “at a point when seeing her required two big scrub-downs and putting on protective gloves and masks,” recalls Elliott. Their get-well gifts included shaggy green slippers with frog faces. “Little did I know when I put on those froggy slippers that they would take on a life of their own,” says Roberts, whose friends then bought them in solidarity. “Oprah still wears them. Come on, you’re wearing frogs on your feet! How can you be in a bad mood?”
Roberts is doing well, but recurrences are not unusual with MDS, so she is helping her cause by participating in clinical trials. “We’re all anxious for this to be in the rear-view mirror,” says Dr. Roboz, “but we’re not there yet.” The anchor’s eyesight remains blurry, making it hard for her to read the teleprompter. “I don’t panic,” she says. “I just have to give [my coanchors] a look and they’ll start talking; they’ve got my back.” She is susceptible to colds and infections and has been told to avoid handshakes and kisses, but she seems to crave human contact, rushing outside on her first day back at GMA to elbow-bump fans. Dr. Giralt has sent her emails urging her to be careful, though as he confides philosophically, “You could put her in a bubble and wrap her in Saran wrap, but this is who she is. This is part of her healing.”
Ask how her experience has changed her and Roberts says, “I’m stronger than I thought I was. My favorite phrase has been ‘This too shall pass.’ I now understand it really well.” To fight her fears, she practices yoga and visualization. “When I close my eyes, my happy place is Key West, coffee in hand, sunrise over the pier,” she says. “I can visualize that in the studio, and it has helped calm me.” She no longer feels that productivity means booking every hour of her day months in advance. “I don’t want to plan. In a year’s time I want to still be able to say to you, I am in the moment.”
In being extraordinarily open about her illness, Roberts aims to make people more aware of MDS and the need for bone marrow donors for many diseases. Barry Huff, a senior vice president of the activist organization Be the Match, says that the anchor’s candor has sparked an impressive response: 56,000 people signed up to be potential donors after Roberts announced her diagnosis.
Nevertheless, being the center of attention has been uncomfortable for a journalist used to the other side of the microphone. The night before returning to GMA, Roberts spent an hour on the phone with Josh Elliott, bracing for the spotlight. He told her, “You have to let that love cascade over you.” Her sisters gave her similar advice. “They said, ‘Take your hands off the wheel. Allow yourself to be loved,’” Roberts says. “It was very difficult, but it brought people joy to bring me joy.”
Roberts has struggled with a few “why me?” moments, but she takes solace in the knowledge that her experience has helped others. “I feel now more than ever that my life has purpose,” she says. “I think that I am being used for light and love and resilience. For whatever reason, I’m able to touch people, and I’m so grateful for that.”
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