By Sharon Cotliar and Richard Jerome
Updated October 20, 2008 12:00 PM

The night before her breast cancer surgery last August, Robin Roberts roamed around her New York City apartment, too scared to feel anything. “I was in a fog,” she recalls. But the Good Morning America coanchor wasn’t alone. Her 84-year-old mother, Lucimarian, was there and so were her big sisters: Sally-Ann, who’d flown from Louisiana, air mattress in tow, and Dorothy Roberts McEwen, up from Mississippi. At one point, Robin placed Dorothy’s hand on her own right breast so Dorothy could feel the malignant mass. Dorothy’s eyes widened in shock. “It was like marble, like a rock,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘Oh, my God.'”

It was a momentary lapse. For the most part Dorothy, 52, a healthcare administrator, and Sally-Ann, 55, a New Orleans news anchor, have been towers of strength for their baby sister, visiting and phoning through the entire roiling journey, from the discovery of Roberts’s cancer in the summer of 2007 to her emotional on-air announcement, partial mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation. The siblings have also helped by enrolling in the Sister Study, a National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences survey of women whose sisters have suffered from breast cancer [see box]. “I have good days and bad days,” says Roberts, 47, amply energetic as she bantered with her sisters at home Sept. 27. “I’m dealing with the side effects [from chemo]. I get sinus infections and colds. I walk like an old lady in the morning and evening.”

Growing up in the small town of Pass Christian, Miss., the Roberts girls (who have a brother Lawrence, 60) were always close. Sally-Ann recalls Robin as a good-natured pleaser. “I’d say ‘Go into the house and bring the Oreos’ and she would.'” The dynamic would change. As Roberts grew up into a success as a local sports reporter, making the leap to ESPN and GMA, she “became the leader, the organizer, the benefactor,” Dorothy says. But after her diagnosis, Roberts admits, “I felt like the baby again.”

Tears stream down her face as she recalls an especially grueling round of chemotherapy. “I was in bed, and had this terrible sore on my leg,” she says. “Sally-Ann said, ‘What’s that?’ I said that’s the chemo trying to get out of my body. She just put her hand on my leg and started praying.” Then there was the time Dorothy made her a butterfly bracelet that said, “You’re my breast friend.” Says Robin: “It’s those sweet, unspoken things.”

The sisters flew north again last December after Roberts, depressed near the end of her chemo, asked for them. “I knew she really needed us,” Dorothy says. “She’d be on TV smiling, but when I saw her in her apartment, she was like, ‘I had a good life. If I don’t wake up tomorrow, I’m okay.'”

After three weeks off and some long walks with KJ, her Jack Russell, Roberts rebounded. She remains resolutely positive, though acutely aware that a recurrence could lurk in the shadows. “I’m not telling you I’m cancer-free,” she says. “I have a very aggressive type called triple-negative that happens in a lot of African-American women. I had a screening last week, and nothing showed up. The trick is to find it early.” Aside from doctor’s visits every couple of months, she undergoes acupuncture, sees a nutritionist and hits the gym. “Yes, I am living with cancer,” she says. “But don’t go ‘woe is me.’ I don’t want it. Don’t need it. I’m still in the game. I don’t want to say ‘survivor.’ I want to thrive.”