Cancer made me stronger
Would you rather be… Thin or Strong? Sharp or Sexy? The surprising results from our Healthy Now survey,
If you’re looking for someone who defines strength under fire, you’ll find no better role model than Robin Roberts, Good Morning
America’s co-anchor since 2005 and a two-time cancer survivor.
Roberts was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007 and then, in 2012, was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome, a rare and often fatal blood disease. In fact, she just celebrated her six-year “birthday,” meaning it has been six years since her sister Sally-Ann donated the bone marrow needed for Roberts’ lifesaving transplant.
Her health journey made her particularly interested in the results of our recent Parade/Cleveland Clinic survey, which revealed that Americans are rethinking what it means to be healthy. Instead of focusing on meeting society’s unrealistic body standards, respondents were more concerned with being seen as positive, mentally sharp and balanced. They chose strong over thin and smart over sexy. We knew Roberts would have a lot to say about what it means to be healthy today.
Strong is the new healthy
“Thank you for saying being physically and mentally strong is the new healthy, because I believe everything I have faced—whether at GMA or with my health challenges—is as much mental as it is physical,” Roberts, 57, says while sipping warm water with lemon during our interview at GMA ’s Times Square studio. “My mantra is ‘I have to change the way I think in order to change the way I feel.’ That gets me motivated.”
Another study revelation: While many of us are coping with a health issue, that doesn’t mean we have to lead unhealthy lives. In fact, the survey revealed that 67 percent of Americans believe it’s possible to balance being healthy and dealing with a chronic illness, something that resonated deeply with Roberts.
“It’s funny to say, after going through cancer twice, that I feel stronger than I ever have in my entire life, but I can
sincerely say that and it’s true,”she says.
Not that Roberts considers having cancer a blessing. “I’m not going to be one of those people who says cancer was the best thing that happened to me,” says Roberts, who chronicled her journey in her 2014 memoir, Everybody’s Got
Something, including the 100 days of being shut off from the outside world after her bone marrow transplant, time she needed to rebuild her immune system.
“No, cancer wasn’t the best thing that happened to me, but fighting off two life-threatening illnesses taught me so much about who I am,” she says. “When I was diagnosed, I had taken such pride in eating right, not smoking, and drinking in moderation, but cancer doesn’t discriminate. I’ll never forget: My doctor said my lifestyle didn’t prevent me from getting cancer, but he said, ‘Boy, it’s going to help you fight it.’ And so that’s how I look at it.”
Finding healthy habits that stick
While Roberts is quick to call her health journey a roller coaster, she’s forgiving about the ups and downs.
“It’s all about giving myself a break, knowing that I’m going to fall off the wagon and not beating myself up for it,” she says. “We all know what we need to do, but are we there to open our minds and say, ‘I’m ready’? That’s what my journey has been.”
Staying consistent—whether it’s sipping kombucha [a fermented tea beverage] every morning at 7:30 or finding a new exercise regimen and falling in love with it—remains a goal for Roberts, who says she loves variety in her workouts.
“I’ve always been athletic, but I find that to be able to keep fit you can’t get bored,” she says. “So right now I’m in this Peloton craze [an at-home exercise bike workout that digitally connects the rider with a competitive cycling class]. I love that you can go for as long as you want, it can be high intensity or it can be low impact.”
Ultimately, Roberts is grateful she’s strong enough to work out. “I exercise and do things now not because I want to but because I can,” she says. “There was a time not so long ago that I couldn’t do that.”
Off the GMA set, Roberts has become known for her optimistic social media posts, such as Monday Motivation, Wednesday Wisdom and Thankful and Thriver Thursdays—all meant to inspire her nearly half-million Instagram followers.
“What I really love about my Instagram is that, while I respond as much as I can, the group responds to each other, they lift each other up,” she says. “They have become this wonderful family and tribe. There’s a lot going on in the world today, and I have long believed that optimism is a muscle that gets stronger with use. When challenging times come, I look for that silver lining.”
Roberts credits this glasshalf-full attitude to her parents. Raised on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, her father, Lawrence, who died in 2004, was a colonel in the United States Air Force and a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen. Her mother, Lucimarian, who died in 2012, was a social worker and educator and was the first African-American to serve as chairwoman of the Mississippi State Board of Education. It was her parents who inspired her and her two sisters and brother to engage in a lifetime of service.
“My parents came from very humble beginnings, and I saw that from an early age,” she says. “But they always helped others. For example, it would be Thanksgiving and sometimes airmen and -women couldn’t get home for the holidays and there would be someone at the table. I’d say, ‘Is that a cousin?’ and it was, ‘No, that’s someone who couldn’t get home.’When you’re around that all the time and it’s not a big deal, that’s what you do.”
After studying at Southeastern Louisiana University, where she became a star basketball player, Roberts began her career at her local TV station, and at age 29, after working in cities including Nashville and Atlanta, she joined ESPN as a host of
SportsCenter. Then, after several years as an ABC contributing correspondent and news reader, Roberts joined Diane Sawyer and Charlie Gibson in 2005 as a
GMA co-anchor. Despite career highlights, including coverage of countless news events, such as Hurricane Katrina and the inauguration of President Barack Obama, as well as the Academy Awards, where she has hosted the red carpet preshow, Roberts says she revels in downtime with her partner, Amber Laign.
“Amber—you don’t have
“Faith, family, friends. Surround yourself with that,” says Roberts, here with her partner, Amber Laign.
enough time for me to sing her praises,” she says with a laugh. “When I was first diagnosed in 2007, Amber was working in fashion. She would walk by the studio and wave—it was early on in the relationship, when everything’s new. One day at dinner, I had two hairs on my head, and she said, ‘I quit my job. I want to be a massage therapist. I want to heal people.’ She said watching me go through my health battle inspired her.”
Roberts remains close with her family and stays connected via group text messages that often include silly jokes sent by her brother, Lawrence Jr.
“Your tribe determines your vibe, and my family is my tribe,” she says. “I appreciate the fact that my mother and father established a strong foundation for us to remain a family. We make time for each other, and my sister saved my life, so I’ve got to be nice to her— your sibling saves your life, that’s a big one!”
Rise and shine
Finally, with an alarm that rings every morning at 3:15, Roberts is often asked, “How do you get enough sleep?” For starters, she’s in
“He brings us joy and he brings others joy.” That’s Lil Man Lukas, the Tibetan spaniel–papillon mix (now Instagram star) Roberts and Laign rescued.
bed by 9 p.m. most nights.
“Sleep, my friends—it’s not a luxury, it’s a necessity,” she says. “There are times when I want to work out but I’m tired. I will go to bed and the rest will do me better than working out.”
Staying calm in a hectic world is another daily goal.
“I’ll never forget one crazy morning on set with George Stephanopoulos,” her GMA coanchor. “He was just so peaceful. I said, ‘Dude, what are you doing? I want some of that.’”
It was Stephanopoulos who turned Roberts on to Transcendental Meditation, something she does every morning at 3:30.
“I’m telling you, that half hour of meditation is like five hours of sleep,” she says. “And, yes, I’ve gotten to that age where I’ll take a little 20-minute nap during the day. I find it’s really helpful.”
With her confident exterior and sunny outlook, it’s easy to think Roberts wouldn’t get emotional in an interview, but when asked what the younger Robin Roberts would say to the 50-something version of herself, the tears began to fall down her cheeks.
“The younger Robin Roberts would tell me it’s going to be OK,” she says. “You’re going to lose your health, you’re going to lose your mom and dad, but you know what? You’re going to be stronger than you think you’ll be. It’s going to be OK; you’re going to figure it out.”
Robin Roberts was a DJ? Go to for our behind-thescenes video.