On July 31, 2007, Robin Roberts, co-anchor of ABC’s Good Morning America news show, revealed her breast cancer diagnosis to the public on air. After starting treatment, she returned to the show on August 13. And since that time, she’s seemingly been healthy.
But 3 weeks ago, Roberts again had some personal news for her Good Morning America viewers: she has a rare and potentially fatal blood disorder, thought to have been caused by chemotherapy for her breast cancer. What’s her prognosis? And how worried should survivors be about this serious side effect down the road?
Several weeks ago, while huffing and puffing through my usual early-morning treadmill workout and distracting myself with the morning news shows, I happened to channel surf over to Good Morning America.
In an unusual scene, the entire morning news crew was sitting on a couch together. Robin Roberts, one of the show’s co-anchors and a 5-year breast cancer survivor, was holding hands with two of the guys" and my heart sank.
This can’t be good, I thought. And it wasn’t. But rather than hearing Roberts announce she’s had a recurrence, she told viewers she’s the victim of Myelodysplastic Syndrome Diagnosis (MDS), a usually fatal "pre-leukemia" apparently caused by the chemotherapy she received 5 years ago. She noted she’ll be getting a bone marrow transplant in an effort to beat the disease.
Roberts went on to temper her announcement with the news that, despite an average cure rate of just 20%, she and her doctors feel she has a 30% to 40% chance of surviving MDS. Her sister has been identified as a perfect match for the transplant; and Roberts is generally fit, fairly young (51), and in good health, all of which increase her survival odds.
MDS typically occurs 5 to 7 years post-chemo; thankfully, only about 1% to 2% of cancer patients are diagnosed with it, though it happens most often to breast cancer and Hodgkin’s disease survivors. A bone marrow/stem cell transplant, accompanied by chemotherapy, is the typical treatment.
But it’s an awfully tough treatment; up to 30% of MDS patients die simply as a result of the treatment itself, rather than the disease. Compared to 5 years ago, Roberts is facing a much more serious challenge; truly, a life or death situation, with death having the upper statistical hand.
So, listening to Roberts, I felt sick all over, right to my toes. When you fight your way through breast cancer treatment and its terrible side effects, as so many of us do, you hope like hell you’ll never, ever have to hear the words "This might kill you" again.
I mean, where’s the justice? You willingly subject yourself to an incredibly difficult ordeal to beat cancer, and 5 years later you’re facing death anyway.
That really stinks. And the fact is, where cancer’s concerned - there IS no justice. No guarantee that any treatment will work. And time after time after time, bad things do happen to good people - good people with cancer.
Roberts, ever the pro, successfully fought back most of her tears as she spoke from the heart to viewers and her colleagues. And she demonstrated the same strong spirit evident in her initial bout with cancer 5 years ago.
"It’s about focusing on the fight, and not the fright," Roberts noted. "I’m like anyone who faces a life-altering situation. It’s get up off the mat and fight."
We know you will, Robin. And we’ll be with you all the way - just like last time.
Kotz, D. (2012, June 11). Robin Roberts’ blood disorder linked to breast cancer treatment: how big is risk? Retrieved from https://bostonglobe.com/lifestyle/health-wellness/2012/06/11/robin-roberts-blood-disorder-linked-breast-cancer-treatment-how-big-risk/koJwGraMGJupLSGXu5yK5K/story.html
PJ Hamel is senior digital content editor and food writer at King Arthur Flour, and a James Beard award-winning author. A 16-year breast cancer survivor, her passion is helping women through this devastating disease. She manages a large and active online survivor support network based at her local hospital and shares her wisdom and experience with the greater community via HealthCentral.com.