Robin Roberts on Her Cancer Battle, the Lowest Moments and Why 'GMA' Is No. 1

Robin Roberts First Day Back GMA - H 2013
ABC/Heidi Gutman

Robin Roberts First Day Back GMA - H 2013

The newly-healthy co-anchor of "Good Morning America" tells THR about her struggle with bone marrow cancer, bouts of sadness and why Oprah wanted to sub for her.

Ask Robin Roberts what she's most proud of achieving over the last year, and the laughter comes quick and easy.

"The proudest moment... is to be alive!" the 52-year old co-anchor of Good Morning America answers during a chat late last month. It's both an obvious and humble answer; nothing can top her successful battle with bone marrow cancer, but the volume of work she did during the struggle only accentuates her will to live.

Roberts helped lead her ABC morning show to topple the Today show in the ratings for the first time in nearly two decades, then sat on the sidelines while she underwent a successful bone marrow transplant and radiation treatment. The dispatches she gave during her medical saga, from videos from the hospital to confessional-style diaries, were broadcast on GMA throughout the battle, and in a 20/20 special late in the treatment. She was awarded a Peabody for the effort, and has since returned to the anchor's chair at GMA, which is still tops in the ratings.

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The Hollywood Reporter: Congratulations on the Peabody win. Was it especially meaningful, given that it was given to you for the series on your health struggles?

Roberts: Yes, and I especially appreciate that it was for the body of work, it wasn’t for any particular thing that we did during the course of my journey. It was as the Peabody committee put it, it was for our community service. And often times, morning shows are criticized for being too light and fluffy and all that and it was just humbling for our group to be recognized like that.

THR: On a personal note, I had heart surgery a few years ago, and I had a blog and people reached out to me. So I can only imagine the outpouring you got.

Roberts: People are going through so many things, whether it’s with your heart or blood cancer or whatever. As my mom used to say, we all have something, and it was just incredible, the outpouring and support, and it became like an online community, people helping and sharing ideas. It was extremely comforting.

THR: How did you decide where the line on privacy was, what you would share and what you wouldn't?

Roberts: It was really organic. It was just, if I felt it was something that could be helpful, then we would go with it. GMA and ABC took their cue from me, they never came to me and said "we want to do this, can we do that?" They just waited to hear from me. There’s no handbook. We were just figuring out as we were going, but the bottom line was whatever we thought would be most helpful.

There was a lot, in that 20/20 special, they were showing me some early cuts and I was like, "When did you shoot that?" A very dear producer that’s been with me a long time, who’s like part of my family, Karen Leo was in the room, and there was that one scene where I was crying because my sister was singing, I had no recollection of that whatsoever, but I thought it was important to show people that you can’t just be smiling and "Oh, everything’s great!" It would be a disservice to those who have had a bone marrow transplant and their families, and knowing how difficult it is, but showing the other end, that yes you can get through it, but you had to be honest in showing the bad parts too, the most difficult parts.

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THR: Was there anything that was especially difficult to show?

Roberts: It was difficult to show my low points. It was difficult to admit that I had moments of feeling defeated, and really being honest with feeling that I was slipping away, because I’m always seen as an upbeat person, and I am, I’m optimistic, but it was difficult. I don’t know of anyone who has done that, in the position I’m in, you’re very vulnerable when you show yourself like that. But in the end I thought it was best to do that, to be honest about it.

THR: How has your approach to the job changed, in the sense of which stories you want to pursue, how you perceive your impact?

Roberts: It’s twofold because I want to have fun, I’m so happy to talk about something other than my health. But there are times when we’re doing something and I’m like, "Really? Hmm..." I am a bit more serious in my outlook on life, but it’s still striking that balance. But my enthusiasm when that alarm clock goes off at 3:45 and going into the studio, that has remained the same and my approach. There are times when I kind of go "Hmm.." but like everyone, you need an outlet, you can’t talk about serious things all the time.

THR: It’s been an incredible year for GMA, with your story and becoming number in the ratings, and I think it has a lot to do with the team’s chemistry on set. What is it that people respond to?

Roberts: You cannot fake the funk in the morning. People who are watching know if it’s being forced or you’re trying. We are friends. I had breakfast with Josh [Elliot] yesterday. It was after the show, everyone was going their separate ways, and I knew I was going to be gone for a long weekend, so I said, "Wanna grab breakfast?" So we just go down the street and sit down and have breakfast. It’s like anybody else that you’re friends with.

You know when it’s real and when it’s not. And the audience picks up on it. I think the fact that we do spend so much time off-set together, it translates on air. Because we can look at each other and we know exactly what the other is thinking, and there’s a real comfort in that. It makes people uncomfortable in the morning, if you’re trying to at someone else’s expense, look good or funny, but it’s together we do it.

THR: So now that you’re back and full speed ahead, what kind of stories and interviews do you want to pursue?

Roberts: I was so happy to have a chance to talk with Valerie Harper. I was sorry that it had to be via satellite, but I just look at her and think "Oh my goodness." The one interview that’s gotten away that I’ve always wanted to do, and I know I won’t do it, is Nelson Mandela. Those types of interviews. Yeah, do I want the hot stars, the starlets, who’s buzzy? Sure, I want to talk to them, too. But I still want to strike the same balance, of what is topical, but also what is heartfelt, deeper.

THR: Well speaking of stars, one of the first things you did when you came back was the Oscars. So what’s the secret to getting a good answer from people?

Roberts: It’s really kind of easy because everyone is such a great mood. And when you’re talking to them on the red carpet, everyone’s a winner. They haven’t selected the Oscar winner yet, so the nominees are in a good mood. Always try to include the person they’re with, whether it’s their wife, girlfriend, boyfriend, spouse whatever. And just to be relaxed with them, put them at ease. I think I come across as the person at home. i ask the questions and act the way someone at home would. I’m Cinderella at the ball when I’m there, so it meant a lot to be there a year later, because that’s when I knew I wasn’t doing so well.

THR: It seems like a silly question to ask you after all that’s happened, but we’re asking everyone what they’re proudest moment of the year has been. So, anything in particular stick out?

Roberts: The proudest moment... to be alive! I’m very happy to be alive a year later. Of course I’m thrilled that our program is number one. It’s not something that we take for granted or talk about at all, and I’m really proud at how our audience responded to me personally, and to the issue that I was facing, and to know that tens of thousands of people have registered to be a bone marrow donor, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been raised in less than a year, I’m very proud of our audience for responding as they have.

THR: So many people came out to do guest host gigs during your sabbatical. How did that happen? Did you reach out, or did they?

Roberts: It was a combination of the two. It was some people that we did ask, and some people were like hey, I wanna do it. And I gotta tell you, it was a hoot, to be in my froggy slippers in bed, watching people that were part of the family and doing that. Oprah said it best, I was blown away when I was told that Oprah wanted to do it. And she called me, and I wasn’t home that she left me a message that I kept for the longest time. And she said, “Of course I want to do that.” And she talked about stepping in the gap. She said, "I’m not replacing you, I’m not filling in for you, I’m just stepping in the gap that you’ve created by not being there." And I loved when she was on the set and she said that she loved being with my GMA family. People were having a good time. They were doing karaoke and things like that. It was fun to watch from home.

THR: I know from experience that when you’re sick, it can be hard to watch what your friends are doing from afar. So did you watch the whole time, or take time off?

Roberts: A little bit of both. It was hard to watch in the hospital. I was in the hospital for a month, and it was difficult. I agree with what you’re saying. In the end, it became more fun to watch. In the beginning, it was kind of like the little kid sister -- "I want to be there, I want to try to keep up." And I knew I couldn’t be there. And there were times I would see they were having so much fun, and I was like "Oh my gosh, will I experience that again? Will I be sitting in that chair again and having fun and dinging the little bell?" So it took time for me to watch on a regular basis, but in the beginning it was difficult.

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