After surviving a rare blood and bone marrow disease in 2012 — just a few years following her breast cancer battle — Good Morning America anchor Robin Roberts returned to the public eye, opting to, in her mother’s words, “make her mess her message.”
“Someone once said that when you share so much of yourself, it’s really universal, that people really could relate — it helps them so much,” Roberts told PEOPLE at the WebMD Health Heroes Awards in New York City on Thursday night. “I didn’t plan on doing this, I didn’t plan on sharing as much as I have. But I kept finding there was a way.”
Roberts, who hosted the annual event which honors those making positive strides in the medical and wellness community, said she’s embraced the idea that “we all suffer loss.”
“We lose our jobs. We lose our marriage. We lose our health,” the 55-year-old explained. “That’s not the tragedy — if we don’t take the time to understand why this was placed in our path, what we can learn from it and be better for it, and help others. If you don’t do that, that’s the tragedy.”
Now feeling better than ever, Roberts reflects back on a time when her health was in crisis.
“I didn’t have anybody to look to when I went through — when I went through breast cancer, there were a lot of people who go through that, and so there was a lot of information that was sent to me and I could read books,” she said. “Myelodysplastic syndrome, which is a bone and blood marrow disorder, there was very little to read. I didn’t even know you could have a stem cell transplant — I never knew they existed, I never know you could donate your stem cells and they could potentially cure up to 70 different conditions.”
By opening up with viewers and fans, she’s become a source for other people seeking support while on their own journey. Roberts told PEOPLE that she gets daily tweets from family members of those going through similar situations. “The loved ones feel so helpless,” she shared. “So I talk to them quite a bit.”
In return, Roberts, too, has felt the support. In fact, she said, “I’m trying to pay it back.”
“Every single day, someone comes up and they tell me that they’ve prayed for me, and it’s hard for me to express what that means when you know people of all faiths are lifting you up,” she said. “And wishing you well. It’s daily, weekly, people come up to me and they’re just so happy that I’m healthy and the fact that I share so much, and when they have somebody that’s going through it and they’ll point to me and say, ‘Look, Robin was in that same situation but look at her now.’ It’s a privilege to be a messenger and I think I’m a messenger of hope.”
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And now, Roberts is happy to be a part of an event that recognizes those often hidden from the public eye. In fact, she’s hosted the Health Heroes Awards for three years running.
“I can’t tell you what it means to recognize, in my eyes, true heroes,” she told PEOPLE. “Health heroes. People who are willing to share their stories in hopes of helping others, and I know it was very helpful for me in my two health challenges, and I — I watched the Cubs win, and it was wonderful. I watched the CMAs. It’s wonderful that we recognize athletes and musicians and that, but why don’t we do the same thing with people who are doing wonderful things in the world of heath? And that’s what this is all about: giving them their due.”
Among those recognized? Registered nurse Betty Ferrell, scientist Ed Damiano, and Seth Rogen and wife Lauren Miller, who received the People’s Choice Award for their work in Alzheimer’s awareness and research funding through organization Hilarity for Charity.
“[Seth] was here last year, he didn’t get an award. He was here last year to help present and for him to, which is very often the case — his mother-in-law, Lauren’s mother, is going through [early-onset Alzheimer’s],” Roberts says. “Again, they didn’t have to share this. And they’ve raised millions of dollars with their charity and I think this is wonderful that they’re being recognized.”