Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts, who has spent the past year sharing her breast cancer journey with viewers, describes the inspiration and the challenges of facing a diagnosis in the public eye.
By Diana Price
When I talk to Robin Roberts, co-anchor of ABC’s Good Morning America (GMA), she has probably been up for almost six hours already—even though it’s only 9:30 a.m. in New York City. She may have interviewed a world leader or a celebrity, has no doubt taken the time to talk with fans, maybe sampled something from a cooking segment, has discussed news and current topics on-air with co-hosts Diane Sawyer, Chris Cuomo, and Sam Champion, and, on this particular morning, has apparently been involved in some sort of water gun fight (don’t ask). And now, before she heads off to spend the rest of the day preparing interviews and researching future broadcasts, she’s taking the time to be interviewed herself. Because though she would have done anything to avoid the event that has placed her in the spotlight in recent months, the fact is that Robin has become an important story herself.
In June 2007, while preparing a tribute to former ABC colleague Joel Siegel—who had been an advocate of early screening and prevention during his own battle with colon cancer—Robin performed a breast self-exam and found a lump. On July 17, after undergoing a biopsy, she was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer. Over the next year, Robin would share many aspects of her journey with the GMA audience, generating both an outpouring of heartfelt support and a number of critically important informative segments on topics related to breast cancer for the morning news show. Now, more than a year later, Robin is through treatment and filled with gratitude for the many blessings that continue to see her through the experience and with awe at the response her story has generated.
But to really understand the graceful way Robin has navigated this past year, it’s helpful to know a little about where she comes from. And I don’t mean the physical place—although Pass Christian, Mississippi, is no doubt an essential part of who she is. What you need to know about Robin is that she comes from a place of faith, a place of family, and place of principle—and that throughout her journey with cancer she has been fueled by the blessings of this rich foundation.
Robin provides insight into her personal history and her appreciation for these blessings in her 2007 inspirational memoir, From the Heart: Seven Rules to Live By. The book, which follows Robin from her childhood on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where the family settled after her father’s U.S. Air Force assignments landed them stateside once again, describes her success as first a high school and then college (Southeastern Louisiana University) basketball star, before following her up through the ranks in network sports journalism (she worked in Nashville and Atlanta before being hired by ESPN in 1990) to her current position with GMA. Throughout, the book is framed by seven principles, or “rules to live by,” learned through sports, that have guided Robin’s success and which are still so clearly part of her life—rules like Dream big, but focus small; Focus on the solution, not the problem; and Keep faith, family, and friends close to your heart. Of the seven, it is this last that truly ties them all together—in the book and in Robin’s life.
“Make Your Mess Your Message”
It’s no surprise, then, that when faced with perhaps the biggest personal challenge in her life, Robin would turn to her family to help her navigate one of the first difficult decisions that followed her cancer diagnosis. It was a tough call at the time, Robin says, but she needed to decide in the days following her diagnosis if she would make her journey public. As she grappled with the reality of her situation and upcoming treatment, she felt that her viewers deserved to hear it from her: “Morning television is very intimate,” she says. “It’s different from other programming. We truly look at our viewers as an extension of our families.” The thought that her “family” might get the news of her diagnosis from someone else didn’t seem right: “Honestly, I didn’t want them to hear it from anybody else—plain and simple; I didn’t want them to hear it from anybody but me and Diane. And I knew that if they did hear it from anybody else, I would be dying; it would be Stage 52,” she laughs, describing the inevitable exaggeration of secondhand news, “So why not just be upfront?” But despite her impulse to share the information, it wasn’t easy to make the final decision to break with such personal news.
In the end it was her mother, Lucimarian, who inspired her. “My mom said, ‘Make your mess your message,’” Robin says. “She helped show me that there are others who are going to benefit from [my story] and that the pain and discomfort I was going to go through would be minimal compared with the benefit I could bring to other people.” It was her mother’s insistence on this greater benefit and on her responsibility to share the resources and the gifts of her own life that helped propel Robin toward the public announcement: “She said, ‘You know, Robin, you are abundantly blessed, and you have resources that other people do not have; you need to be their voice, and you need to be an advocate for them.” And because she was so aware of how empowering the resources had been in her own experience, Robin knew she had to bring that information to others: “I am the first one to hold my hand up and say I have had so much help because of the position I’m in, but I don’t want to just take it and run. I want to use it to be an amplifier and a magnifying glass for those who are not in this situation.”
And so, on July 30, with her co-hosts beside her, Robin shared her diagnosis with the GMA audience. But Robin’s not sure the equation worked out quite like she and her mom had planned—she is in fact convinced that over a year later she has emerged with a greater benefit than anything she could have provided through sharing her story. “Though I did it for all the right reasons, I’m almost embarrassed to say that I’m the one who has been rewarded—the thoughts, the gifts, the prayers that I have received have really been tremendous in my fight with this. I’m humbled by it, and I really think I’m the one who has benefited the most from it.”
Blessed with Resources
The period that followed her initial diagnosis, Robin says, was overwhelming, as she waited for the results of further testing and sought out her medical team. Left reeling by the diagnosis and the treatment that lay ahead of her, the many offers of help that came pouring in from family, friends, and colleagues really pulled her through this time. “I was kind of in a corner—a bit numb—because I couldn’t really make the best choices; it was hard to make changes.” Having friends and colleagues who had been through the process before or who had experience with the kind of research Robin needed to embark on was a gift. “I was very fortunate to have some colleagues who had gone through breast cancer,” Robin says of the process of putting together her medical team, “and they made suggestions. I was very pleased with the doctors who were recommended.” Her co-host, Diane Sawyer, was particularly helpful, she says, leaving no stone unturned and interviewing doctors coast to coast as she looked into treatment options and providers. “Diane is insatiable in wanting knowledge—she must have called every doctor in this country—she was exhaustive; that’s the kind of wonderful friend she is.”
Ultimately, having found a team of providers she felt comfortable with, Robin was able to move forward, knowing that she would receive excellent care, and she felt blessed to have had so many options to choose from. “I was very fortunate to have the resources that I did,” Robin says, conveying a spirit of gratitude that is truly the hallmark of her journey with cancer and, in truth, of the way she moves through the world.
Challenged, Surprised, and Supported
Despite the tremendous support, the days and the months that followed the public announcement of her diagnosis were also full of challenges. Robin faced surgery, eight rounds of chemotherapy, and six and a half weeks of radiation therapy. “What was toughest for me,” she says, describing the impact of the treatment, “was losing myself: I just wasn’t present. I like to be engaged in anything I do—any conversation I have, any activity I do; I like to really be into it, and I just wasn’t there. And that really hurt.” Physically, she says, the aches and pains she experienced in her hips and knees took her by surprise, as did the neuropathy (numbing in her fingers and toes) that became quite uncomfortable.
Still, there were a few nice surprises as she made her way through treatment. “I was surprised by the fact that the chemotherapy itself doesn’t actually hurt,” Robin says, laughing. In fact, those four-hour-long sessions in the chemo chair became a time to unwind some days, as she listened to an iPod that friends and family had filled with their favorite songs and photos, watched movies, and visited with friends who came along. “When else would I have four hours to lie around and watch movies and eat lemon drops?” she says. Ultimately though, jokes and lemon drops aside, it was the loss of time—and of self—that Robin mourned during those months.
Again, as Robin faced the inevitable challenges of treatment, it was her family, friends, and colleagues—not to mention the wider family of her GMA audience—who stepped in to carry her through. Extremely close to her mother (her father, Lawrence, passed away in 2004) and her three siblings—brother Butch and sisters Sally-Ann and Dorothy—her family’s love and prayers were essential. Though it wasn’t easy at first, Robin says, to relinquish her role of caretaker within her family: “It was very hard for me. I am the baby in the family, but this is the first time I felt like the baby again—I’m always the mother hen and I always want to take charge.” But her family relished the opportunity to give something back, she says, and their love and care were invaluable.
Also essential was the outpouring of encouragement, prayer, and well wishes that she received from GMA viewers—people across the country whom she has come to consider her extended family. “When you realize that people of all faiths are praying for you,” Robin says, it is truly a humbling and powerful experience. Also humbling—and inspiring—were the many e-mails and personal interactions in which viewers have offered their prayers, told her their personal stories of survivorship, and described their newfound resolve to undergo cancer screening themselves. “There’s not a day that goes by that someone hasn’t come up to me and been very thankful for the information that we have passed on to them,” she says. “Countless people have told me that they have gone in for screening—mammograms, ultrasounds—and many have been okay; but some have not heard the outcome they wanted. But because they did get checked and because they found it so early, they are going to be fine, and they would not normally have checked themselves out.” The impact of these interactions and of the wave of generous support that continues to come her way, Robin says, have been tremendous. The unfaltering support she felt from her GMA family, including her co-anchors—Diane, Chris, and Sam—the executive producers, and the entire crew, as well as the opportunity to report to work each day and carry on with the job she loves so much was also a saving grace throughout treatment. “I felt very fortunate to be able to still work. I know many people cannot work during treatment, and I know that there are some who don’t want to work but have to because they won’t get a paycheck if they don’t” Robin says. “I’m very aware of both those cases.” Grateful that she could work, and that her passion for her job often distracted her from the daily grind of treatment, her time on the show during those intense months was not without its challenges.
“I was grateful that, first of all, I could go to work and, second, that I wanted to go to work,” she says. “But there was also a part of me that felt bad in some regard because I felt like I wasn’t pulling my weight. My colleagues never made me feel that way. Everyone here—especially the executive producers—was very accommodating, but I just felt that way sometimes.” The internal struggle, Robin says, was partly brought on by the fact that her lowered immunity during treatment meant she couldn’t travel for assignments, which is generally a job requirement (although she did go to the Middle East in the middle of chemo treatment: “I wouldn’t recommend that,” she laughs, “but you don’t say no when the first lady invites you for a breast cancer initiative for the Komen Foundation”). Despite the frustrations that she encountered on a personal level, her time at work allowed her to maintain a sense of normalcy and routine during a time that was anything but normal. “I loved it,” she says of her time at GMA during her months of treatment. “I don’t think I could have gotten through without it.”
Transforming and Transcending
One more benefit of going to work each day at GMA, Robin says, was that as she began to physically bear the side effects of her treatment, she could rely on being transformed every morning back into the “same old Robin”—with a little help from hair and makeup, or the folks she calls “Team Beauty.” “In the middle of chemo, when I lost all my hair—and I mean all over my body—I felt like a 12-year-old girl again. To be able to come into work was like being put back together again—like Humpty-Dumpty. And for two hours I got to look like I used to look before cancer. I would look in the mirror and say, ‘Hey, I remember you.’” It was a daily meeting, Robin says, that proved essential.
In fact, Robin was put back together so expertly by Team Beauty each day that it’s impossible to tell, in viewing video of her broadcasts during those months of chemo, that she was undergoing treatment. But those who watch the show regularly knew the real story: Robin took viewers along when she shaved her head as her hair began to fall out; they saw her tears in the hairdresser’s chair, and they felt the real impact of this incredibly personal moment that was so expertly concealed. In fact, Robin says, the GMA segments that dealt with her hair loss were those that garnered the most reaction throughout her public journey. And she recognizes the power of the issue: “I think it was so powerful for people because going bald for some people, and for me as well, is harder than contemplating whether you’re going to live or die. For some people it even prevents them from seeking care.” In Robin’s case, as for so many women, losing her hair meant acknowledging, publicly, that she was a cancer patient. “The only time I really felt like, Oh boy, I have cancer, is when I was bald. Before then I was just like everyone else; I was just blending in. But it’s hard to blend in when you don’t have any hair. People give you that tilt of the head, that little I’m sorry look, and you don’t want that—you don’t want to be treated like a cancer victim.”
There is no doubt that Robin’s decision to stop wearing her wig for her GMA broadcasts as her hair started to grow back in the spring of 2008 was one more powerful indication—for herself and for so many other survivors—that she would not be a victim of this disease. Like the India Arie song (“I Am Not My Hair”) that became an anthem of sorts for Robin, she became a vibrant example of a woman who moves beyond the superficial to celebrate “the soul that lives within,” though she acknowledges the difficult road it took to get there. “For women of color, especially,” she says, “our hair is a daily discussion. So to lose that, it’s traumatic. But I have to say I was much more comfortable about losing my hair than I thought I would be; it was the buildup—being on the ‘hair watch’—that was tough. Once I shaved it, I thought, Oh, that’s it?” And, Robin says, choosing when to shave her head was empowering: “I decided; cancer didn’t, chemo didn’t—I did that. I was going to lose my hair that day.” There’s no rulebook for when and how to do things along the way, she says, but, “We wear the wig for other people’s comfort, not ours,” and she made the choices that felt right—on her own timeline.
Similarly, Robin is taking this post-treatment recovery period day by day, aware of the public interest in her story but also aware of her need to do things on her own time. “I’m just so happy that when I wake up in the morning it’s not the first thing I think about anymore,” she says. But she also knows that she will need to continue to make decisions about how her breast cancer story will be a public part of her life, and she finds that her feelings about that have changed since she was initially diagnosed: “I thought in the beginning that I’d share as much as I could or as much as I was comfortable with but that once I was through with treatment I would just move on. But now, as a survivor, I have a sense of responsibility to all those people who, when I was really down on the mat, would come up and share their stories with me and share their insights. When you are blessed to get through it, you want to become that person for others.”
Robin says that the opportunities she is given to truly make a difference in the lives of other survivors remind her, always, of the benefit she can provide and of her own gratitude: “It always moves me when I get an e-mail or a call from someone who has just been diagnosed and I can say, ‘I know exactly how you feel; I know exactly what you’re going through at this moment.’ To be able to give them some insight, to be an ear and have some knowledge for them—something as simple as always be sure you have some ginger in your hot tea or hot water—just little comforting things, can be so helpful.” To know that she can continue to help women in this way, by sharing the blessing of the many resources in her life and by empowering women with the knowledge she herself feels so lucky to have gained on this journey is a gift in itself. So though she has no definitive plan for how she will carry her story forward in the public eye, Robin says, she is content knowing that by continuing to communicate her journey as it feels right, trusting her instincts, and acting from a place of gratitude, she knows she’ll find her way.
Just Another Chapter
One thing Robin is certain about as she moves forward into the uncharted territory of survivorship is that she already has a pretty good internal compass to help guide her choices. The seven principles that she set out in From the Heart: Seven Rules to Live By—those rules that have helped her chart her course throughout her life—were never more compelling than in the time since her cancer diagnosis. “I feel it’s so important to know the rules that we live by,” Robin says, “those principles that have gotten us through the most difficult times.” On her own journey, she found that in the midst of the uncertainty and the fear of her diagnosis and treatment, the rules that had always guided her were again able to ground her and bring her peace: “It really helped me with cancer because you’re reeling at best—you’re just in a fog—but when you get quiet, you recall the things that get you through those tough spots; it’s no more and no less than that.”
When, following her treatment, she was approached about updating the book, she agreed on the condition that instead of a general overhaul her update need only consist of adding one new chapter at the end. Because, she asserted, her cancer journey was just another chapter in her life. The result, published this month, is From the Heart: Eight Rules to Live By, with the final chapter titled “Make Your Mess Your Message.” “It’s so important for everyone to know the principles that are important to them,” Robin says of the message that she hopes this revised edition will impart.
Words to Live
By It’s clear, then, that this is a woman who has thought a lot about the power of a message—and the role of the messenger. Robin has known the value of a life ruled by principles and inspired by faith and gratitude. So when I ask, as we wrap up the interview, what message she would leave with newly diagnosed women and what they might gain from her story, I love that her answer is so, well, real: “If stories of survival are not comforting, they will be in time. It’s okay to be selfish. Give yourself a break. Those of us who have been through it know that it is about you, and it’s okay.”