Robin Roberts: My Dark Days, My Brave Fight



Sitting in a white fluffy bathrobe in front of her bathroom mirror, Robin Roberts-still recuperating from a bone marrow transplant just five months earlier-seems at ease with her striking reflection. Just as she was after battling breast cancer in 2007, Roberts is once again bald, but this time she’s skipping the wig. “Whatever,” the Good Morning America anchor says with a shrug. “I’m thankful I have a pretty-good-shaped head.” And the 30 lbs. she’s lost from her 5’10” frame during her monthlong hospital stay? “It’s been hard to put back on, a first in my life,” she admits. “But I gained a pound last week in New Orleans. Woo-hoo!” And when Charlie Gibson, an old friend and former GMA cohort, drops by her Manhattan apartment and asks how she is, she replies as if nothing eventful has happened: “I’m good. How are you?” she says casually. “No, I wasn’t being polite,” Gibson replies. “I really want to know, ‘How are you?’ ”

That’s the question millions have been asking ever since the anchor left GMA last August to undergo a bone marrow transplant for a rare blood-and-bone-marrow disease called myelodysplastic syndrome, which can lead to a fast-growing form of leukemia. “Every day I feel more like my old self. I didn’t think I would,” Roberts says, noting that she was so weak when she left the hospital in October, she could barely walk. While some shaky moments persist-“I’ve still got chemo brain and my vision is blurry”-Roberts is eager to return to her GMA anchor chair at last on Feb. 20, exactly five months after her transplant. “You feel so bad for so long, you just want to feel normal. And now I do.”

She also has a new sense of perspective after fighting for her life for a second time. While Roberts, 52, projected an upbeat, brave persona in blog posts and tweets during her recovery, “it’s important people know I’m not always like that,” she says. “But I choose to be happy and not string together the bad days.” Says her sister and bone marrow donor Sally-Ann: “We’ve been through a lot the last few months,” including the death of their beloved mom, Lucimarian (see sidebar). “I marvel at Robin’s strength.”

It’s a strength that was tested in April, when Roberts’s doctor told her over the phone he suspected she had MDS. After looking it up on the Internet, “I was literally on the floor,” she recalls. “I collapsed.” But as GMA viewers know, she soon picked herself up and decided to go ahead with the grueling process of a bone marrow transplant; luckily her sister was a perfect match. Just as she was about to begin treatment, another life-altering event intervened: Roberts had to race home to Pass Christian, Miss., during Hurricane Isaac to say goodbye to her ailing mother, who died just hours after Roberts reached her on Aug. 30. The trip came at a pivotal moment for the terrified Roberts. “I don’t care how old you are; when you’re sick, you want your mom,” she says, choking up. “And I wanted my mom.”

Lucimarian’s death left Roberts momentarily adrift. “I didn’t want to have the transplant. I wanted to cancel everything and stay in Mississippi,” she recalls. But she regained her resolve and soon began one of the worst parts of her battle: 10 days of intense chemotherapy to get rid of any remaining abnormal blood cells and prepare her body for her sister’s healthy ones.”My throat felt like I had swallowed a blow torch. I couldn’t swallow,” she says. She was achy and had headaches. She was largely confined to her hospital room-“Your goal for the day was to have enough strength to take a shower,” she says-except for a daily walk. Fourteen laps around the nurses’ station equaled one mile, but she could only go if her blood counts were good. “There was a guard, Gregory. He’d be there every morning, and we’d talk sports, politics, life. He was like my lifeline,” Roberts recalls. She also decided to “bling out” her actual lifeline: the IV pole attached to her. “I put disco balls on it,” she says. “It was a cool IV pole. Even the nurses, when I was walking down the hall, were like, ‘You go, girl,’ ” she says with a laugh.

As for the actual bone marrow transplant on Sept. 20, Roberts says all she really remembers of the 10-minute procedure-despite the crowd of family, friends and her pastor praying and singing nearby-was her transplant specialist Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center’s Dr. Sergio Giralt injecting a syringe filled with 3 million of her sister’s stem cells into a catheter in her chest and seeing him say a prayer. “I love that he prayed,” she says.

Having been warned that “at one point I would feel I was dying,” Roberts says, she soon reached just such a breaking point. Fading in and out of consciousness, “I was in a pain I had never experienced before, physically and mentally,” she recalls. “I was in a coma-like state. I truly felt I was slipping away. Then I kept hearing, ‘Robin! Robin!’ I came out of it, and it was my nurse Jenny. She was screaming at me. I saw her enlarged eyes above her mask, pleading for me to stay here. And thankfully I did. I came back.”

Her recovery required her to remain largely isolated, leading to moments of stir-craziness. One grim night she called GMA news anchor Josh Elliott and left a “somewhat rambling voice mail,” he recalls. “You could hear the exhaustion in her voice. She made mention of doing some James Bond stuff: ‘Break me out of here; we’ll tie together my clothes and sheets and scale the walls.’ ” Says Roberts with a smile: “I wanted him to whisk me up in his big strong arms and take me away. I felt bad after I left him the message.” The next day, a worried Elliott and weather anchor Sam Champion visited her hospital room. “We went in there expecting to cheer her up,” Champion recalls. “She sat herself up, smiled the brightest smile, and for an hour and a half she made us laugh. That’s Robin: Just when you think you’re going to do something for her, she gives you a gift.”

On Oct. 11, when Roberts was finally permitted to leave the hospital, new anxieties awaited. Just as she was about to step outside the hospital doors, “I had a panic attack,” she says. “I thought I’d be so happy, and I was,” she says. But she was also scared. In the hospital Roberts knew she was safe. What would happen once she left? “It took me a little bit to gather myself,” she admits. In the outside world, Roberts had to worry about avoiding infections and couldn’t step outdoors without wearing a surgical mask. “Even in my own home, I was walking around like this all the time,” she says, holding her elbows up like a surgeon. She had her apartment steam-cleaned and sent her Jack Russell terrier KJ to live with a friend for several months.

To combat cabin fever, Roberts wrote in a journal, “watched a lot of mindless TV”-“somehow I got on a Frasier kick”-and had “a lot of what my grandma Sally called quiet time,” she says, “which I looked at as a gift.” At first Roberts, a lifelong athlete, couldn’t believe how weak she was. “I had no strength. My muscles atrophied. Walking from my living room to my bedroom, I’d become winded,” she says. She also struggled to eat. “I would eat a meatball and four strands of spaghetti and be full,” she says. As her strength began to return, she started venturing out on walks.

Then, just as she was beginning to let her guard down, Roberts contracted a virus known as CMV, landing back in the hospital in early November. “I was scared beyond belief,” she admits. “I freaked out.” Fearing she had Graft-versus-host disease, in which the body attacks the transplanted cells, she confronted her doctors: “You guys aren’t telling me everything. I’m going downhill. It’s not working,” she recalls worrying.

Ultimately the virus cleared up within six weeks, but her oncologist Dr. Gail J. Roboz, the director of the leukemia program at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, says there are still challenges ahead. Despite making it through the “super-fragile” first 100 days post-transplant, which are the most critical, “we’re not out of the woods yet,” says Dr. Roboz. “Robin’s immune system is like a 5-month-old baby’s. She’s very vulnerable.”

Still, Roberts, with her doctors’ approval, is ready to return to GMA, though she won’t be back full-time until she becomes re-accustomed to 3:45 a.m. wake-up calls. “I have not missed that alarm clock,” she admits. “There was a part of me at some point that was like, ‘Do I want to do this?’ But the overriding feeling is the joy of going back to something that brings me such pleasure. I miss my little drum roll in the morning and saying, ‘Good morning, America!’ If the price is a 3:45 alarm clock, so be it!”

As doctors continue to monitor her progress, Roberts admits, she is facing the ultimate waiting game. “I don’t know if my heart will ever stop pounding, waiting to hear what the numbers are,” she says of her blood counts. But she is determined to make the most of what now feels like her third lease on life. “I want to give people hope. I want to let them know there is another day,” she says. “I can be fearful or fearless. I choose to be fearless.”

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