colleagues (from left) Josh Elliott, Sam Champion, Lara Spencer, and George Stephanopoulos on Feb. 20.
I know, she’s calling every specialist in the world.” Roberts’s eyes well with tears. “She puts her life on hold when someone close to her is going through something like this.” Together, Sawyer and Besser researched treatments and doctors while keeping Roberts’s illness a secret at ABC News for nearly six weeks. “We were like a little tiger team, the three of us,” says Besser. “People wondered, why is Diane in Rich’s office with the door closed?” Roberts and Besser then interviewed doctors together: He vetted the medical aspects while she sought an emotional comfort level. She chose Dr. Sergio Giralt, a specialist in bone marrow transplants at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and Dr. Gail Roboz, a leukemia specialist at NewYorkPresbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center. The three of them
HowYou Can Help There is a great need for bone marrow donors, according to Be the Match, particularly for people between the ages of 18 and 44 and those from non-Caucasian, multiracial, and multiethnic backgrounds. To join the donor registry, simply ﬁll out a questionnaire at bethematch.org. If you meet the qualiﬁcations, you’ll be mailed a cheek swab kit to send back. By joining the registry, you are making a commitment to donate to any patient in need if called to do so. —Vi-An Nguyen
treated; that night, the sisters got word that their mother was on her deathbed. (Their father, Lawrence Roberts, a retired air force colonel and a pilot with the World War II Tuskegee Airmen, died in 2004.) “I believe Mom held on until she was sure that Robin had what she needed,” Sally-Ann says. They ﬂew home to Pass Christian, Miss., and arrived in time to say goodbye.
oberts’s doctors feared that her grief might jeopardize her medical battle. “It was ripping her apart,” says Dr. Roboz. “ We were extremely worried about her psychologically.” Roberts says the two doctors comforted her by saying, “Now you don’t have to worry about your mother, and she doesn’t have to worry about you.” The next stage of her treatment, chemotherapy, left the anchor and lifelong athlete weak and exhausted. During the transplant, she was touched when Dr. Giralt not only cried— “That’s how much he cares about his patients”—but prayed as well. “I love a doctor who can respect that there’s somebody else on your team, and that’s God,” she says. Sawyer and GMA weatherman Sam Champion were with her when she had the transplant. “I was being given life, and they were there,” she says. “People call them colleagues, and I’m like, ‘Colleagues don’t come to your room when you’re about to be reborn. These are the people that you love, who are close to you.’ They’re family to me.” Champion and GMA coanchor Josh Elliott got permission to visit Roberts in the hospital “at a point when seeing her required two big
PHOTO, THIS PAGE: HEIDI GOUTMAN/ABC. OPPOSITE: COURTESY OF ABC
BACK AT WORK With her GMA
have now spent so much time together that they share a wisecracking rapport. One of the diciest parts of Roberts’s treatment was ﬁnding a bone marrow match. The best chance for a perfect match is often within the same ethnicity or race, and there are relatively few African-Americans in the donor registry (for more information on the need for a variety of donors, see the box below). There’s also only a onein-four chance that a sibling— Rober ts has three: Dorothy, a social worker; Sally-Ann, an anchor at WWL-TV in New Orleans; and Butch, a high school teacher and basketball coach—will be a match. It was an edge-of-theseat moment, but a swab test revealed that “Robin had a perfect donor,” says Dr. Giralt. “Sally-Ann was a 10 out of 10 match. There’s no substitute for that.” Sally-Ann Roberts remembers “screaming” with joy when Robin phoned with the news, but she was startled by her sister’s next remark. “Robin said, ‘Do you want to do this?’ I said, ‘Why would you ask me that?’ I was really surprised at how difﬁcult it was for her to be the one in need.” Robin, the baby of the family, admits that her sister is right. “I want to be the giver,” she says. “It’s been very hard for me but very enlightening to understand what it’s like to be on the receiving end.” Sally-Ann injected herself for ﬁve days with a drug to induce the production of stem cells. She stresses that she had no side effects and adds, “I am terribly afraid of needles, but it wasn’t a problem.” She then gave blood at Sloan-Kettering in New York, where Robin was being
COVER AND INSIDE: WARDROBE, DIANDRE TRISTAN; MAKEUP, ELENA GEORGE; HAIR, PETULA SKEETE; BLOUSE, BURBERRY; PANTS, ST. JOHN; PUMPS, STELLA MCCARTNEY; JEWELRY, JOHN HARDY
her siblings, her friends, her medical team, and the fans who showered her with prayers. “I have been mulling over how much more I have learned about myself through sorrow than through joy,” she says. “I’m a better, stronger, more complete person because of these trials and tribulations.” Her challenges began in 2007 when she was treated for an aggressive form of breast cancer. Five years later, she felt bone-wearying exhaustion while covering the Oscars. After undergoing tests, she pressed her doctor on the phone for the results. “He went, ‘You really need to come in,’ ” she recalls, “and I said, ‘Just give me an idea of what it could possibly be.’ That’s when he said myelodysplastic syndrome, MDS. I kept for the longest time the piece of paper where I first spelled it out.” MDS is a rare and potentially fatal group of diseases affecting the blood and bone marrow; in severe instances it can transform into leukemia. Roberts’s case was likely caused by her earlier cancer treatment. Reeling, she called ABC medical correspondent Dr. Richard Besser. “I needed someone to help me understand what the heck was going on,” she says. “He kind of talked me off the ledge.” A few days later, Roberts ran into her good friend Diane Sawyer. “I just blurted it out. The next thing
8 • MARCH 31, 2013
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A Heartfelt Thank You from Robin Roberts