Robin Roberts is dancing around her Manhattan living room in her bare feet, reprising her grand entrance on Dancing with the Stars – this time, without the 6-in. stilettos. Step, step, spin and dip. The 53-year-old Good Morning America anchor, who appeared as a guest judge last month, has apparently got moves. More than that, Roberts says, “I’ve got my mojo back!”
After facing the fight of her life against a blood and bone-marrow disease called myelodysplastic syndrome, the beloved anchor and breast cancer survivor is not only still standing, she’s got a new spring in her step. Her skin is glowing, her hair is thick, and her muscular 5’10” physique, once alarmingly thin after dropping to 115 lbs., is making a comeback. Says her friend, CBS This Morning cohost Gayle King: “She looks better than she’s ever looked.” Even Roberts marvels at how far she’s come since undergoing a bone-marrow transplant in September 2012. “I’m so much stronger now,” she says.
And braver, it seems. Sitting down with PEOPLE to discuss her upcoming memoir Everybody’s Got Something, Roberts spoke more openly than ever before about the challenges she faced after her diagnosis – “A doctor told me I only had one to two years to live without a transplant” – and the people in her life “who loved her through it.” Notable among them is her partner of nine years, Amber Laign, 39, a licensed massage therapist whom she first named as her girlfriend in a Facebook post in December. “Amber is someone who shies away from the spotlight,” Roberts says, adding that she herself is “a very private person. You can be private; it doesn’t mean you’re hiding.” Publicly acknowledging their relationship stemmed from a spontaneous moment when Roberts was overwhelmed with gratitude for everyone who gave her strength: “Faith, family and friends got me through the most difficult time in my life.”
She has certainly endured plenty of difficulties. “I was at my absolute lowest when my mother passed days before my transplant,” she says of her beloved mom, Lucimarian. “I wanted to go away. I was done,” she says. “But as my sister Sally-Ann told me, it takes courage to believe the best is yet to come.” That, says Roberts, “is where I feel I am now.”
Not that the battle is over yet. As part of her treatment, Roberts is still receiving low-intensity chemotherapy shots with minimal side effects, where a tiny needle is injected under the skin of her stomach every six to eight weeks. She’ll continue to get the shots until the two-year anniversary of her transplant later this year. “A bone-marrow transplant for MDS doesn’t guarantee that the MDS is cured,” says Roberts’s oncologist Dr. Gail Roboz, director of the leukemia program at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. The treatment is intended to stave off a recurrence since “the relapse rate is significant.”
Having survived breast cancer in 2007 only to discover she had MDS in 2012, Roberts says she can’t worry about the possibility of another bout with cancer. “I look at what I did as a cure, not a stopgap measure,” she says. “I have to hold on to that. Otherwise it would rob me of who I am.” Adds King: “Trials and tribulations show what you’re made of. Robin is made of class, grace, and she doesn’t give up.”
So far, she seems to be in the clear. “I don’t have to hold my breath as much when they’re drawing blood, and I am waiting for the results to come back,” she says, noting her last few blood tests have been normal. Another victory? She can now afford to succumb to the common cold, “and it doesn’t mean I’ll land back in the hospital,” she explains.
That’s good news for the millions of viewers who tune in to GMA every morning to see her. After the recent departures of Sam Champion and Josh Elliott, Roberts, who recently signed a reported $14 million contract, is even more key to the broadcast. “She is the heart of GMA, the emotional center of the show,” notes anchor and friend George Stephanopoulos. As for the changes? It won’t affect her relationships with her former colleagues. “We’re friends for life,” she says of Champion and Elliott, adding she’s grown close to Lara Spencer and has a special bond with the new news anchor Amy Robach, who is battling breast cancer just as Robin once did and who credited Roberts with encouraging her to do the on-air mammogram that ultimately saved her life. Roberts is also celebrating the new addition of Michael Strahan to the mix. “Talk about somebody who’s the real deal,” she says. “He has such a big heart, and he sends flowers. He’s got it!”
These days Roberts says she feels incredibly blessed. “I am a walking miracle,” she says, acknowledging how lucky she was that her sister Sally-Ann was able to be her bone-marrow donor. (One in four African-Americans struggles to find donors.) But as grateful as she is to Sally-Ann for saving her life, her mom made her promise not to favor her over her other two siblings. “It’s one of the things she said to me before she passed away,” she says, choking back tears.
Having grown up in a tight-knit family, Roberts realizes now more than ever how valuable that support has been throughout her illness and her decision to speak out about Laign, whom her friends and family have known for years. When Roberts first had “the big talk” with her sister Dorothy about her sexual orientation nearly 30 years ago, she worried when Dorothy started to cry. Her sister’s answer: ” ‘I’m not crying because of what you told me. I’m crying because you love me enough to tell me,’ ” Roberts recalls. She shared her relationship with Laign for the same reason. “I felt that I love [my viewers] enough to let them know everything about me,” she explains. She also wanted to acknowledge the key role Laign played as her caregiver: “She was there, holding my hand, helping me. I have this person in my life. I love her that much, to let people know that.” In the end, Roberts says, “you know what I was most thankful for? The vast majority of people shrugged their shoulders.”
Ultimately, it was her mother’s words years ago that allowed Roberts to find real peace. While her mom had always been supportive of girlfriends she brought home, and they had an “understanding” about her sexuality, they didn’t really talk about it. Then, several years ago, “she sensed from me that I just needed to know it was okay with her. She said to me, ‘You are my child, and you’re a child of God, and I love you.’ Right then I didn’t care who knew what. My mother loved me, and more importantly, she said to me, ‘God loves you because of who God is, not because of anything you did or didn’t do.’ ”
In her book, Roberts is happy to give Mom the last word. As for the next chapter of her life, Roberts says, “I want to be happy, healthy and present. Who knows what will happen? I continue to surprise myself.”