Rockin' Robin Roberts
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.