SPECIAL OFFER: - Limited Time Only!
(The ad below will not display on your printed page)
That's the cure for cancer, right there," says Robin Roberts, looking at Diane Sawyer, her co-anchor at ABC News' Good Morning America, as we sit around a small table in a cavernous photo studio in Manhattan just five days after Roberts has had her last radiation treatment for breast cancer. It has been roughly a year since Roberts made the then shocking news of her diagnosis to some 4.5 million GMA viewers and then proceeded to document her own treatment and recovery in ground-breakingly intimate ways, including taking cameras with her when she shaved her head and had a chemotherapy IV in her arm. Her struggle moved, empowered, and awed all of us, whether you've had breast cancer, know someone who does, or ever had a jolt of fear that you might one day, too.
But how did Roberts get through it, really? In their first-ever joint interview on the subject for a magazine, Roberts and Sawyer let us glimpse the "never underestimate the power of a woman" quality of their friendship, which is, apparently, not only real (as skeptics sometimes wonder when watching the pair's warm camaraderie on air) but is in fact quite extraordinary. During the whole interview Roberts has a lone tear tracking down her cheek from the corner of her right eye, though some private code of dignity seems to compel her to ignore it. And yet this is a conversation that is punctuated by frequent laughter, as the two friends make easy puns at each other's -- and their own -- expense. Sawyer speaks so softly that one must strain to hear her ("Yes, she's a low talker," Roberts remarks), and this -- plus the searingly intimate topic -- adds to the feeling of being an eavesdropper on a private exchange. Sawyer is watchful and meditative yet quick as an Olympic figure skater on her feet with a joke. (And -- just as the last time we met for an interview -- she is feeling chilly and asks for my tossed-aside coat, huddling gratefully into it as we speak.)
During the cover photo shoot just an hour earlier, the two women burst out of the gate ready to have fun. They started dancing and mugging to the blasting Motown like a pair of elegant sorority girls just finished with finals, and surprisingly, it's Sawyer who is the most full of high jinks. "There she goes, trying to lead!" says Roberts in a faux-miffed tone as Sawyer grabs her hand for a twirl. Roberts is sporting a new chic wig that will approximate the length of her actual hair on GMA as this issue of Ladies' Home Journal hits newsstands. Indeed, the very next week after this dual Dancing Queens performance, Roberts will go on national television without any wig at all. So naturally, it is the place where we begin our conversation.
Ladies' Home Journal: I love your new hair.
Robin Roberts: Oh, thank you. I can give it to you. You can have it.
LHJ: She'd give you the shirt off her back...
RR: ...and the hair off my head [laughs].
LHJ: I was wondering how you were going to handle growing your hair out on the show.
RR: At first I thought I'd wait for it to grow back almost completely before I would take off the wig. And then I decided, no, I will go on with it shorter.
LHJ: It's very flattering.
RR: Well, thank you. You never realize how much -- even though we're empowered women and all that -- it comes down to our hair. I think it's from our mothers, when we were yea high. They constantly are talking to us about it.
Diane Sawyer: Robin always does what she's feeling. So the idea that she has a strategy or plan could not be more removed. She really does what she's feeling is true in that moment. She is free of all expectations from the world.
LHJ: Robin, how are you feeling? You look so healthy and energetic.
RR: I'm very fortunate and very blessed. Being athletic did not prevent me from getting cancer but it has helped me in battling it. I think that's part of the reason why I have seemingly handled it as well as I have. I had some really rough times, though. I remember one Saturday morning when I couldn't get off the couch. Diane came over with her dog, Lila, then went to the store and got rice pudding, because that's about all that sounded good to me. There were a lot of days like that, that people didn't see. But I did feel a sense of responsibility to be truthful about how I was doing. Once I announced I had cancer, I knew a lot of extra eyes would be watching me. So I didn't want to fake it. I didn't want people to think, "Oh, cancer's a bed of roses." It's not. There are so many people living with cancer. I wanted to be able to change the face of what it really looks like.
DS: A surprisingly large number of people want to -- or have to -- go back to work while getting chemo. I think they look to Robin as one of the few people who has shown what it's like to do that.
LHJ: What message do you want people to get?
RR: One time I talked on the air about Diane's perfume. I had just had chemo, and my senses were really heightened. During the commercial break I made some comment....
DS: You were hyperventilating! I guess trying not to throw up on me.
RR: Exactly. I looked at her and said, "Love you, but you're killing me with the perfume." So we go on the air, and we actually have a little side conversation about it. After that, so many people said thank you, that they were working with someone who had cancer and didn't know that that could be an issue, so they wouldn't wear perfume to work anymore. So people have picked up on little things like that, because there's still such a mystery surrounding cancer: How do you live with it ? And how can you be a caretaker?
DS: I think what you've also communicated to everybody you work with is, don't make assumptions. Don't assume that someone is going to be 100 percent. But don't assume they're not going to be, either. Let them guide you. My husband [Oscar-winning movie director Mike Nichols] quoted someone the other day who said the greatest gift someone can give you is a change in yourself [looks to Roberts]. You have given all of us this, because you have taught us how to talk to you about cancer. And by being so funny all the time, you've taken the anxiety out of talking about it.
RR: I don't want pity. I don't want the tilt of the head. I tried to show that to my coworkers. And you know the best thing they did for me? They treated me like Robin. People have said to me, "How could you go to work?" I'm like, "How could I not?" I don't think I would be doing as well as I'm doing had I not gone back to work. Sitting at home eating bonbons wouldn't have been the answer.
LHJ: Diane, was there ever a time when you felt protective or overprotective of Robin, that you wish she had listened to you?
RR: Oh, I'm gonna love this one. Go ahead, be honest.
DS: I felt a couple of things. I didn't feel she should have traveled.
RR: I know, I know. [Roberts traveled to the Middle East while she was getting chemotherapy to do a report on the stigma of breast cancer in Muslim societies.]
DS: I was also concerned that she not be pressured into doing anything publicly. That if she wanted to stay completely private, she could do that, too. That she did not do anything for the world before she took care of herself. And I was just a little worried, because in our business, and in our world, suddenly you're dealing with this as a public event when what you really need to do is fold in and just protect yourself. You want to make sure that you've heard your own thoughts. You don't get back your chance to think through how you really feel as opposed to telling other people how you feel. I didn't want her to suddenly have to be on a treadmill of interviews and publicity, unless she wanted to.
LHJ: Robin, at what point did you tell Diane that you had found a lump?
RR: I was on vacation and e-mailed her about finding a doctor, because I had moved and was in between doctors. I didn't want to tell her what it was about. My mom has often said, "We're lumpy people. Don't worry about it." So I just said, "I need a doctor. Just inquiring, just need a checkup." But I also knew that Diane's mind was going, Whooooooa! Who on vacation asks about a doctor?
DS: I'm a BlackBerry addict, and that was one of the few times I was out and did not check it till the next morning.
RR: So I got in touch with Deborah Roberts [a correspondent at ABC News] and went to see her doctor when I got back. I happened to be on assignment when I got the call that the biopsy showed that it was cancer. I was in the public eye for, like, 12 hours before I could get back home. I had to talk to my family in code, because I didn't want anybody to know yet. I was going, "Remember the thing I was gonna get checked out? Well, that thing isn't so good." Finally, the next day, when I came home I walked in and just collapsed on the floor and cried. Just cried and cried. And that night I told Diane.
LHJ: Can you both recall that conversation?
RR: As you can imagine, it's a blur to me -- that whole period of time. All I remember is just this calm, this absolute calm, coming from Diane. [Roberts pauses here to collect herself.] Diane is the type of person who makes you feel everything's going to be all right. That she is going to will it for you. The conversation I do remember vividly was after my surgery when we got the test results back and they weren't quite as promising as we'd hoped. The cancer was more aggressive and more advanced than we initially thought and I was going to have to have chemotherapy. I'm crying on the phone to Diane. And she still is just very calm, compassionate. She had been up calling doctors on the West Coast. I can already hear her dialing doctors on her second phone [turns to Sawyer]. When I was paralyzed with fear and couldn't make a call, it was so comforting to know that you were gathering all this information for me. I knew I was going to have the best possible care, and the best possible outcome.
LHJ: Diane, what's your memory of those conversations?
DS: [Looking intently at Roberts] I remember the first conversation. Your voice caught, but you were very matter-of-fact. That you had a lump, it was cancer. And it was the two of us saying, Okay, this is the news today. And everything is going to be great. I knew it, I knew it. And then I did start calling. I called every place, the middle of the country, the West Coast. So I could tell you what they were telling me, which was, "This is going to be okay." To me, when you're in the middle of a crisis, one of the hardest things is to ask the questions you're meant to ask.
LHJ: Diane, how did you handle your own fears about Robin's prognosis?
DS: I genuinely, in my heart, knew it was going to be okay. As Robin says, I tend to think I can will things sometimes. But also, what right do I have to be afraid? And I would hate to let what I think may happen, or worry about, change what is happening today. So I have a pretty fierce door I lock in my own mind.
RR: Which was very helpful, because I was shaken. And to look at her and see that she is convinced -- I needed that certainty. Diane never wavered for one moment in her belief. That was empowering for me.
DS: I was making doctor calls, too, which is part of why I was so certain. It wasn't just the giant bully at work. [They both laugh.]
LHJ: Diane, did you rush out and get an ultrasound after Robin was diagnosed?
DS: I do get regular mammograms and I won't go if it's not digital. I wish I could make sure that everybody in the country had access to digital. [Digital mammography has been shown to be superior to film in detecting lumps in dense breasts.] But if you're young, or if you have dense breast tissue, you have to get an ultrasound, too. And you have to ask for it. Obviously, risk factors will influence your doctor's decision. And you have to be willing to accept some false positives if you're going to go this route, but I think a lot of women would say, what the heck. [An important new study by Johns Hopkins University demonstrates that using ultrasound in conjunction with mammograms increases findings of early cancer in women with dense breasts 50 to 78 percent, though it does increase the chances of false positives and unnecessary biopsies.]
RR: When I revealed I had breast cancer, we talked a lot about the things I was finding out: I never knew before that about 80 percent of women who have breast cancer don't have a family history of it. Diane and I were like, "We've got to let people know this." We don't want just our family members to go out and get tested. We want the women watching us to go out, too.
LHJ: Let's talk about your relationship before the cancer diagnosis. Diane, you said that Robin's coming to the show was like having another sister suddenly come into your life. That's a strong statement.
RR: I think it helps that we're both Southern. [Roberts was raised in Mississippi; Sawyer is from Kentucky.]
DS: I think so.
RR: And we have similar mamas -- strong mothers who are there for their children, wanting the best for them. Diane was not just welcoming to me but to my family. I'll never forget at one of the lowest points in my life, when my father had just passed away [Roberts's father, a Tuskegee Airman who was among the first African-American pilots during World War II, died in 2004] and I flew home to Mississippi. The next morning we were headed to the funeral home, backing out of the driveway, and my mom says, "Who's that?" It's about 9 in the morning. I look. Big sunglasses, hair pulled back. It was Diane. She had flown to Mississippi and stopped at our favorite restaurant to get us gumbo, so when we came back from making the arrangements we'd have food at home.
DS: I remember the look on your face when you saw me. You must have thought I was a stalker.
RR: Well, I didn't recognize you! My sister, Dorothy, was like, "I think that's Diane." And I'm like, "Diane, is that you?" We were running so late we had our neighbor across the street, Vicki, let Diane into the house. And Vicki's like -- "Diane Sawyer! There's Diane Sawyer." And so it was.
LHJ: Diane, clearly your actions were powered by real feelings of attachment. How did the bond grow?
DS: How can you name the reason for a feeling? Some of it's protective. I don't know why. I'm not -- well, yes, I am that much older! [Roberts is 47 and Sawyer is 62.] But also, I think that we all feel that Robin is unique in the universe.
LHJ: We're in a moment in the country where race is being talked about very openly, more than it ever has been before. In terms of your friendship, do you talk about how race has affected each of your lives growing up? And how it affects you now?
DS: You mean...I'm white? [Both women laugh uproariously.]
LHJ: I'm sorry to be the one to break the news.
DS: But...did you see me dance? [More hilarity.]
RR: Because we're such great friends we have talked about race. We've done it a lot on the program. I love that when people tune in, they see Robin, they see Diane. They see us laughing -- all the day-to-day things. There's no, whoo-hooooo, I'm black! Whoo-hoo, she's white! We tend to lead more by example than by what we say.
DS: One morning -- it still splits my sides to tell it -- I was carrying on about my artificial tan. You hadn't been on the show that long. I'm going on to her about what a nightmare it is that a person has to work to get a tan. And she looks at the camera and says, "I'm not white, but I play it on TV." I thought, oh my God, this is just the funniest moment. I think for all of us, at the heart of friendship is knowing that someone still believes the best of you even if you do something boneheaded.
RR: People talk about how women can't get along. They say women in positions of authority, they're the worst enemies. And that happens from time to time, but Diane and I feel we complement each other. There's no way that I can out-Diane Diane. I absolutely love it that people go crazy when they see her. But then some guy will come up and we'll be talking about sports, and well, Diane is not as knowledgeable as I am in sports. We don't threaten one another. We help one another.
LHJ: Robin, was it hard for you to lean on other people for help during this process?
RR: I don't do that really well. You want to pull your own weight. Our show has a very demanding schedule, and we are in a very competitive industry. You want to feel as though you're doing something to contribute. Diane carried so much of the weight. She never made me feel bad about it. It was always like, "Are you sure you're ready to come back? Shouldn't you take some more time?"
DS: I'm so glad you brought this up. I've made a small list of things I expect from you now.
RR: Now it's gonna come back to haunt me!
DS: You know what I was thinking?
RR: That I look like Halle Berry? With my nose running? Sorry.
DS: Yes, I was thinking, Halle Berry, eat your heart out [laughter].
LHJ: Robin, you said on the air about Diane, "This is my Thelma" [taken from the 1991 female buddy movie Thelma & Louise, starring Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis]. And a lot of your viewers picked up on that in e-mails. Tell me how that came up.
DS: When Charlie [Gibson, the longtime GMA co-anchor and now anchor of ABC World News] left, we knew that we were the first female co-anchors. And we knew that it was untested, unreflected upon. So we were just laughing. It's being in that convertible, with your arms up, heading for that cliff.
RR: In fact I have a great little silver platter that you gave me when we first became co-anchors that says "Thelma and Louise" with the date of our first time co-anchoring together. A lot of women picked up on that. People would send me e-mails saying they have their own Thelma. Or their own Louise.
DS: But I think it's true with men, too. If Charlie had still been on the show, it would have been Thelma and Louise and Charlie. But I think what may be a little different with women is there is a level of intimacy. And an understanding about hair.
RR: Or lack thereof [laughter].
DS: And maybe a little bit of what it takes to get yourself armored up for public appearances. Things like that, I just understood. No words needed.
LHJ: Robin, what is your current prognosis?
RR: The prognosis is very good. I've completed the treatment. [Postsurgery, Roberts had eight rounds of chemo over an eight-month period and radiation treatments every day for seven weeks.] I still have some loss of sensation in my toes and cloudy vision [common side effects of chemo]. But I feel better each day. It's a little tense right after you finish treatment. You want to hear "all clear." But it's very good.
LHJ: Your oncologist was on GMA saying that women never quite get put back together the same way after having cancer. Is that your experience? Do you feel wholly changed by it?
RR: It's like a rebirth. I had a fairly good appreciation for life before this. I didn't really need cancer to get my attention. But I'm grateful for what it's taught me and how it's helped others. And I'm excited to feel better again. I remember someone said, "Soon you'll wake up and cancer won't be the first thing on your mind." It's not the first thing on my mind anymore. Sometimes I go a long time without thinking about it.
LHJ: What's a long time?
RR: Oh, hours. But before it used to consume my every thought. And then you realize you just want to get back to having fun, taking vacations and living your life. Because I do feel as though it's been on hold for a little bit.
LHJ: Is there anything I haven't asked you?
DS: I have a question: I want to know if you shaved your armpits? [Laughter.]
RR: Finally! You can't shave during radiation. So I was European under one arm for a while.
DS: [Looks at Roberts] I want to get back to something: You are someone, at the end of this journey, who has emerged with different eyes.
LHJ: How do you mean?
DS: I watch her in the morning with the audience. Everyone was coming up to you and telling you their story. And your eyes are reaching around them and holding them. Robin was always kind and passionate and caring. But the depth of consolation and connection -- they look into your eyes for their strength and light. It's a great gift you have.
LHJ: Robin, you've talked about the fact that you e-mailed some of the women who wrote to you and were at a similar point in treatment. Do you feel a bond with other cancer survivors?
RR: Yeah. And I know that I'll keep in touch with many of these women. Because you walk through it together. You have this understanding that other people don't have. In the beginning they told me, "The moment you're diagnosed, you're a survivor." At the time I didn't really feel I earned it. Now I feel I have.
LHJ: Diane, what's something people don't know about Robin that you think they should know?
DS: Everyone has to know how Robin would come into work in the morning, before the crack of dawn. I would hear people laughing as she made her way down the hall, saying one funny thing after another. Or the day she came in the back door without hair for the first time, and people were celebrating her. To hear her make jokes about herself, about life, and say to everybody there, "This is how it's gonna be. This is how it's gonna be together." Man, that's going to church. That is something profound. [Turning to Roberts] You taught me that we don't have to be different with each other, that we can talk about cancer as part of life.
RR: We taught each other. And I'm just so grateful for the support I received. I'm an extrovert. Being around the audience -- instead of draining me, it energizes me. So I get the credit for being the nice one, the sweet one. Diane is tenfold that, but because of all her accomplishments people don't focus on that. I want people to know this warm, loving, wickedly funny side that people don't get to see. If you are in need, if you are riddled with cancer, you want this woman in your corner. [Looking at Sawyer] That's the cure for cancer, right there.
LHJ: What role has your faith played in all of this, Robin?
RR: It's unwavering. I mean, who am I to complain? I've had a great support system and healthcare many more advantages than other people have had. I don't think God selected me to have cancer, but my mother said I was given this opportunity to bring light to those who don't have the same opportunities, when it comes to an illness like this. I didn't pray any more -- well, no, I prayed a lot more. But I will say this: To know that people of all faiths, whether it was in a church or a temple or a mosque, were lifting me up? Praying on my behalf? You cannot not be a changed person, knowing so many different people around the world were lifting you up to their respective God. That's powerful. And it's gonna stay with me.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, August 2008.