Amy Robach has interviewed a long list of influencers—from Oprah Winfrey to Taylor Swift to Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai—in her long career as a broadcast journalist.
But in November 2013, she became the story. After undergoing her first-ever mammogram on-air at Good Morning America (GMA), where she had worked as a correspondent since 2012, she was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 40.
“‘I had been carrying around a mammogram prescription for a year,” says Robach, now 42. “Honestly, I didn’t skip it because I was too busy. I just didn’t think I needed one. I have a ginormous Catholic family and no one has ever had breast cancer.”
After the stunning news, she kept working while undergoing a bilateral mastectomy followed by eight grueling rounds of chemotherapy—even landing promotion to news anchor midway through chemo. Among her biggest supporters was co-anchor Robin Roberts, who was treated for breast cancer in 2007 and battled a rare bone marrow disease in 2012.
The journal Robach kept throughout her treatment and recovery provided key material for Better, her new memoir. In it, she writes candidly about how she and her husband, actor Andrew Shue, coped with the news and shared it with her two daughters and his three sons. “I wanted to help people by sharing something on a very deeply personal level,” she says. “I want people to know that they’re not alone and that there is life during cancer and after cancer.”
Curled up in her dressing room chair, Robach spoke with Spry Living about the challenges of parenting while undergoing treatment, the highs and lows of sharing her story on national TV and why she’s flossing her teeth more than ever.
Gone are the days of taking my health for granted. I’m eating better and sleeping more. Anything I can do to give myself one more day on this earth, I’m going to do it. I was at my dentist recently and he told me my teeth look really good. Because of everything I’ve been through, I’m not even taking that for granted so I’ve been flossing a lot.
When I was diagnosed, I lost my sense of security. Nothing even comes close to the fear, the dread and the sense of loss that comes with a cancer diagnosis. We know, intellectually, that security is a myth, but when you lose it, when you realize that you’re physically vulnerable, your whole life changes.
Telling my story has been the most fulfilling thing I’ve done so far in my career. I think most journalists get into this business to have an impact, but I never imagined this would be how I would do it. For example, I recently got a tweet from a woman who wrote, “You’re the reason I found my cancer.” How can you possibly top that, knowing you helped to save someone’s life? It’s like I’m a lifeguard pulling someone out of a riptide.
Suggesting women delay their mammograms until they’re 50 is not something I can support. We know that women in their 40s who develop breast cancer typically have the more aggressive and deadly types. We also know that the earlier you find it, the better chance you have to survive it—period, end of story. Organizations throw out statistics but those are just numbers. Those organizations don’t treat breast cancer patients, they don’t see what breast cancer does to a woman and to her entire family. If the technology is available for early detection, the access should be too, no question.
Accepting help wasn’t easy. During treatment I was forced to let my daughters’ school community make us meals every night, which was really hard for me. My parents were there whenever I needed them and my friends bought me mastectomy bras and distracted my kids by doing activities with them around the city. It was hard to be helpless, but if you can let people help you, it’s ultimately a beautiful thing.
When it comes to loved ones, it helps to follow your gut. Since I’m not a good faker at anything, I knew it was important to be transparent with my kids about what was going on. I wanted to prepare them for all the possibilities of what I might look like during treatment, for example, but I also reassured them that their mom is a fighter and was going to give it her best. Throughout this time, Andrew and I learned how to communicate better and love better. A cancer diagnosis isn’t easy on a spouse. I was getting all the care, the cards and the flowers, and Andrew was off on his own not getting a lot of that support.
I want everyone to have a Robin Roberts. The fact that Robin had walked that cancer road, not just once, but twice, and was sitting on set looking strong, radiant and beautiful was a beacon for me. Robin was there for me every step of the way. I love the fact that the two of us are on the GAM set every morning showing an actual picture of health and hope.
Breast cancer was a big motivator for me to change my life. I still have a lot of stress, but I’ve tried to change how I react. I’m so much more relaxed with my daughters—I love getting on the bed and playing with them in a way that I didn’t do before. I laugh more and I care a lot less about the things I can’t change. Beating cancer isn’t about living or dying but how you choose to live each and every day.