Rockin' Robin Roberts
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Rockin' Robin Roberts

How Robin Roberts took on cancer, kicked its butt, and started living a richer life. (We'll have what she's having.)

Faith and Adversity

They've known each other since 2002, when Robin Roberts was named news anchor of Good Morning America and Lee Woodruff's husband, Bob, became the weekend anchor for ABC's World News. But it wasn't until several years ago that Roberts and Woodruff really bonded. In 2006 Woodruff's life was turned upside down after her husband sustained a traumatic brain injury while covering the Iraq War. A year later Roberts was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer at age 46. Together they've learned a thing or two about the power of friendship, faith, and facing adversity head-on. Roberts recently became a supporter of Ford Warriors in Pink (ford.com/warriorsinpink), and as she marks the four-year anniversary of her diagnosis, we asked Woodruff to talk with her friend about what it takes to get through the bad times -- and the surprising good that can come from them.

Lee Woodruff: You are a few years out from kicking cancer. How do you live your life differently now, given what you went through?
Robin Roberts: I'm calmer about things. More at peace. If I stub my toe I'll still scream "ouch!" but otherwise it takes a lot to get under my skin. Things that used to bother me, like getting my hair wet in the rain, now make me laugh. I don't sweat the small stuff. I've always been a happy person, but in the aftermath of something big, like cancer, you realize how much needless worry we all go through as human beings. When I start getting worked up over something, I often ask myself, Would I want my final moments to be spent feeling this way?

LW: Are there things you want to do that you've decided you won't put off any longer?
RR: You mean like a bucket list? That's kind of a scary term.

LW: Why? Most of us have something big we want to accomplish. What is it for you?
RR: A couple years ago I watched from my apartment as Captain "Sully" Sullenberger landed that plane on the Hudson River. I was the second caller to 911. I thought about my father, who was a pilot, the whole time. I was in awe. And I told Sully that when I interviewed him later. A couple days after our interview, he sent me a gift certificate for flying lessons. I still haven't scheduled the first one, but now that I've said it out loud, I guess I have to do it!

LW: Let's go back a little bit. After your cancer diagnosis, what kind of mind-set did you adopt to pull through? You were a college basketball star. Did your background in sports help you here?
RR: I'm 5-foot-10 and have always played against taller opponents, so I had to develop a will to win along with my athletic ability. That will to win turned into the will to live. And I don't like to get beat -- not on the tennis court or the basketball court, and I sure didn't want to get beat by cancer. There was something about going public with it, kind of like when you announce, "I'm going to lose 20 pounds!" Once you tell people you're going to do everything in your power to beat cancer, you'd better mean it.

LW: I've spoken publicly about situational depression, when you can start to feel overwhelmed after a major life change like an illness, divorce, or job loss. It often sets in after the adrenaline stops. Did you experience it at all?
RR: I panicked a little bit after my treatment was done, because treatment is a game plan. And then treatment ends and it's kind of like, Okay, now what? I was never good as an athlete when people would play pickup ball. I did much better with a coach and a strategy. I got through the chemo and I felt like celebrating. But sure enough, all of a sudden I started to feel anxious about my health and depressed at times. For nine months I was checked by a doctor every day, and then, suddenly, I was on my own. I would get these aches in my back and my knees from the chemo. In the past I would have discounted it. Now I was convinced I had cancer in my bones.

LW: Did you seek help for depression?
RR: I met with a therapist. She wanted to prescribe an anti­depressant, and I have no problem with people who take them, but in the end I didn't take medication. It wasn't because I thought it was bad -- I was afraid of becoming dependent. And that's the only reason. But the depression part of the journey is real. And I want people to know about it because I don't want them to wonder, What's wrong with me? I've gone through treatment. What's there to be depressed about?

LW: My faith kept me going in my dark days after Bob's injury. Has prayer played a role in your life?
RR: I've always been a spiritual person. I keep a daily devotional in my dressing room and at home that my family has read for generations. But now I find myself with my hands clasped and down on my knees a lot more. Every day before I go on the set I blow a kiss to my dad in heaven and ask him to be with Mama today [Roberts's mother, Lucimarian, 87, lives in Mississippi]. That has become part of my daily routine and if I forget for some reason, my entire GMA team reminds me.

A Thriver, Not a Survivor

LW: I think when I passed 50, and when we got through Bob's healing, I learned to say "no" more and without the guilt. Have you found that, too?
RR: Before cancer, you should have seen my social calendar. It was chock-full. Now? "No" is a complete sentence. I don't feel that I have to follow it up with a reason or a because. No is no. That feels good. And I don't feel badly now if I'm not doing something all the time. It's okay to just lie on the couch and watch TV.

LW: Have your relationships changed?
RR: I tell people I love them more. And hey, I'm Southern. We believe in hospitality. I sometimes get accused of being soft as a journalist, but I believe you don't have to grill people to get the best answer out of them. You can still be nice and be fair. I interviewed Sarah Ferguson recently and she was in tears because she told me I was so nice to her. But I have also found I have no time for people who don't add joy to my life. I am not going to spend my time with negative energy and I tell people who are going through treatment to let the negativity go. If someone crosses my path now and they are dark, they're gone.

LW: We both shared a bond with Elizabeth Edwards. When she passed away I was stunned.
RR: I cannot believe she is gone and I think about her often. She was one of the first people to contact me when I went public with my diagnosis and she said, "Welcome to the sisterhood." She taught me that it's a privilege to be a messenger. She was an incredible ambassador for women with cancer. She was so selfless. I think of her during those times when I don't want to be thought of as "the cancer survivor."

LW: I've found that sometimes being a survivor can mean just getting by. Just keeping your head above water is okay.
RR: Yeah, but I've got to tell you, I'm not crazy about the word survivor. I like thriver. Survivor just means, "Oh, I'm hanging on." I've talked to others who say, "I don't want to say I just survived cancer. I want to say I kicked its butt and watch me now!" A lot of us feel that way.

LW: Do you ever think cancer catapulted you into the spotlight more than your journalistic accomplishments?
RR: That was one of the initial reasons I didn't want people to know about it -- I didn't want it to be the focus of conversation. I wanted it to be a chapter in my life story, not my life story. So when people do try to make it a focus, I know it comes from the goodness of their hearts, but...I will never let it define me.

LW: Do you take work more in stride now, for example, if you don't get the big interview or assignment?
RR: If I don't get the interview I accept it. I don't read into things anymore or look for hidden reasons. I've learned to let things go. I wanted to go to Japan after the earthquake but my doctors said no, due to radiation. I think there is a fine line between being passionate and still being competitive as a journalist and I think I've found it. There is always another "get."

LW: Are there days when you feel angry? Sometimes I'll think, "I liked our life the way it was and I didn't need this event to tinker with us."
RR: Absolutely. I've had more than a few angry days. Most days I feel all that positive stuff. But sometimes little things remind me. There are times with "chemo brain" that I forget simple things and I ask myself if it's due to the treatment or because I'm 50 or a combination. The treatment also put me into early menopause -- hot flashes and all that. That was the ultimate, going through chemo and "the change" at the same time. That's when you look to the heavens and say, Really? Seriously?

LW: What message do you want all of us to take away from your experience?
RR: Women are such caretakers. We put the needs of others before our own. When people who are recently diagnosed ask me for advice, the first thing out of my mouth is "let others do for you, please." And it's so hard for women, mothers, it just goes against our nature. I know it was hard for me. I'm still learning how to do it.

LW: Give me one moment when you felt protected and cared for -- when women friends made the difference.
RR: I started having lunch with a group of girlfriends: Deborah Roberts, Gayle King, Tonya Lewis Lee, and Theresa Moore. They knew I wouldn't talk about treatment when I was going through it. So they had the Robin Luncheon every six weeks or so as their way of laying eyes on me, being able to see for themselves that I was okay. It took me so long to realize what they were doing. I thought, This is so nice, we're having lunch! It was just their beautiful way of saying, We're checking in 'cause we know you won't put your hand up. People need to be creative. Everyone wants to help but not everyone knows how. And don't ask us! Just do it. Do something, do anything, and if we're irritated you'll find out.

LW: Are your relationships with your girlfriends different in the aftermath?
RR: I get way more girlfriend time now. We laugh more, we have silly fun. When I was undergoing chemo some of my closest friends would come in and rub my bald head. I saw the fear in their eyes when they thought I wasn't looking. All of my friends and family understand how precious it is to be living and loving together. Right now is what we've got.

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Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, October 2011.

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