AMY ROBACH WAKES UP every morning with gratitude. “Thank you for letting me wake up, even if it’s at 4 a.m.,” she joked in an interview with CURE®. That’s when the “Good Morning America” and “20/20” news anchor generally begins her day.
Robach, 45, is a survivor of stage 2 invasive breast cancer. Despite her physician’s disapproval, she made the radical decision to get a double mastectomy. During that procedure, a second malignant tumor was found in her left breast. Today, she remains on tamoxifen, a drug that helps prevent the recurrence of hormone-driven breast cancers.
Like many who come face-to-face with cancer, Robach describes herself as a changed and better person. During the interview, she discussed the physical, mental and emotional challenges that come with diagnosis and survivorship.
CURE®: Can you share what ran through your head after you heard the words “You have breast cancer?”
Robach: When (the radiologist told) me that I had a malignant tumor, that I had breast cancer, everything stopped. It was all in slow motion after that. … I did not handle it gracefully or stoically at all — I completely fell apart. I think there was a gasp. I made crazy noises — bawling, snorting. I was alone. I knew they found a mass, but I was sure it was benign. So, when she said (those words), it was just so contrary to everything that I was thinking in that moment. It shook me to my core.
What was it like to fight the disease in a very public way?
I found my breast cancer because of “Good Morning America.” My colleague Robin Roberts, who is a breast cancer thriver, persuaded me to have a mammogram in front of about five million people in the middle of Times Square on live television, just to get the word out that women should go and get their mammograms — we believe starting at age 40.
And it turned out to be much more significant for me, because that led to my breast cancer diagnosis. … I knew by sharing my story that I would save lives. I have heard from dozens and dozens of women that my story did just that, and so I encourage every woman to share her story, because it saves people’s lives and it changes the way they live their lives. … I know (sharing your story) is deeply personal, but the love you get back … Yes, it was scary to be public, but I don’t know how I would have gotten through it if I didn’t have the support from thousands of women who were writing, emailing, texting and tweeting me. It felt beautiful.
You continued to work during chemotherapy treatments. What kept you motivated?
I covered the winter Olympics in between rounds three and four. I thought I was going to take some time off at the end, but then I got this big promotion to be the “Good Morning America” news anchor in between rounds five and six — just when I was going to take my foot off the gas because I was feeling it pretty significantly. And then I thought, “Oh my God, I just got my dream job — I can’t call in sick.” So Robin Roberts helped me choose a way to get chemotherapy on Thursdays. Friday you’re hopped up on all the steroids and drugs they put in you. Saturday and Sunday are rough, rough, rough. And Monday you’re just OK enough to crawl into work. That’s what I did. And just when you’re starting to feel good again — bam! You get hit again.
The mental impact of chemotherapy is significant. You lose your memory, and you don’t really remember what you’re doing — probably not a good combination for someone on live television. But I wanted to (work) because I kept hearing back from all those women who were watching.
I kind of felt like — whether it was imagined or not — people were counting on me to show up, so I showed up. … I was on air for two hours, then I went straight home and collapsed. It was important to me to be something other than a cancer patient, and going to work gave me something to wake up for that wasn’t cancer-related.
Cancer can bring not only physical side effects but also psychosocial and emotional effects. Did you experience this?
There are a lot of physical side effects when you have a double mastectomy. You never really regain feeling in your chest, which is a strange thing. In the shower, I used to get the most upset because that’s when I couldn’t pretend. It’s a strange sensation to have the water hit you and you can’t feel it. I remember crying a lot, feeling sorry for myself — like, “These aren’t my body parts.”
For those of us on drug therapy, you get to experience what menopause is like at 40 — 40 is the new 60! … Hot flashes, mood swings, battling weight gain — it feels very overwhelming. I felt like I turned 40 and lost 20 years. I had to mourn the loss of who I was before and accept who I am now physically.
But mentally — those are the scars that are the hardest to heal and move on from. I was told and warned that when your treatments are over, you’re not going to be celebrating. You might for one day, but then the fear hits you. I’d see grandparents playing with their grandchildren and have dark thoughts: “Will I know mine? Will I play with mine? Will I be that old?” You hear women complain about their wrinkles and you think, “I hope I know what that feels like. How dare she complain about being in her 50s or 60s.”
To control the fear, I think: ‘Live now. All you have is right now. All anyone has is right now.’ … When I feel that fear and pain, and the lump in my throat starts to swell up, I think, “I am well right now. I have everything I need, and I’m going to enjoy the heck out of it.” I’m planning to climb Mount Kilimanjaro for my five-year cancerversary. I think, “What else can I do? What else can I see?”
You have two daughters and three stepsons. What does a cancer diagnosis do to you emotionally, as a mother? Have you or will you discuss cancer prevention/screening with your children?
Once I got diagnosed with cancer, the first and only thought really went straight to my daughters: “How will I tell them?” I reassured them that I wasn’t going anywhere soon — that I had the best doctors in the world. I was gonna fight like hell, and they were going to be right there with me. Things might get rough, and Mom might look a little scary.
They saw me go through this journey with eyes wide open. I tried to hide any despair or fear. I cried a lot of times in the car and shower. I found this strange strength to not fall apart around them.
My two daughters will 100 percent be screened in their 20s. I’m not BRCA1 or BRCA2, but obviously we don’t know all the connections. They will be taking their health seriously. … (However,) it’s important to note that more than 80 percent of patients with breast cancer have zero family history. I thought I couldn’t possibly have breast cancer because it wasn’t in my family. That was a huge wake-up call for me.
What advice do you have patients and survivors?
There is life during cancer treatments, and there is life after cancer treatments. … I know that I could be among the 30 percent of early-stage breast cancer patients who develop metastatic cancer. That is on my mind every day, but I use it for good. I use it to remind myself that time is limited. I live like I’m dying. I know it sounds like a country music song, but it is how I live. That’s how I have inspired my children to live. Everyone around me lives better. We do what we want to do now — we don’t say 10 years from now. I don’t assume I have 10 years, five years or one year. And that makes life so much better.
What’s the first thing you do when you get home from work?
Get into sweatpants! That’s my favorite thing to wear. And I love to cook. I cook every night, especially now that I am ketogenic. I want to make sure that my food is what I want it to be. My little one, who is 12, likes to be my sous-chef. If I make the food, they all have to clean it up. … We try to (have family dinners) every night. It’s tough with teenagers, but it’s an important part of our family ritual.