Robin Roberts’s Sister Is a Perfect Bone Marrow Match

It was the news that ripped Sally-Ann Roberts’s heart into pieces: Her younger sister, “Good Morning America” host Robin Roberts, had breast cancer. Years after Robin fought off the disease (and Sally-Ann did the happy dance), devastating news came again: The cancer was back, only this time it was in Robin’s blood. Sally-Ann, herself an anchorwoman, is about to help her sibling kick the big C’s ass by giving her the gift of a lifetime—a bone marrow donation. Read the edited version of our interview with Sally-Ann below

by Ilyssa Panitz • Celebrity Reporter
sally-ann roberts image

More: Many are calling you a hero.
Sally-Ann Roberts: I hear that, but no. I am a sister. Any sister would do this for a sister in need. This is a no-brainer as far as I am concerned.

More: Some people might not have the bond you and Robin have and step up to the plate to do this.
SAR: I feel sorry for people who are in that situation. My sisters, Dorothy and Robin, and I call each other the sisters three because we are a bond. Even our big brother, Butch, is a part of that bond. I can’t imagine what my life would be without them. They have been there for me during the terrible storms in my life. Now it is my turn to be there for them.

More: How did you know your bone marrow was a perfect fit for Robin?
SAR: I had a swab test of my DNA. The doctors were able to determine that on a 10-point scale, I matched every single point. Keep in mind Robin and I are not twins, and yet we matched up so perfectly.

More: Where did you do the test?
SAR: Robin brought them home. Let me add, we prayed over that kit. We knew going into this that only 25 percent find a match from a sibling. Most people have to go outside the family to find a match.

More: What was your reaction when you learned the results?
SAR: I screamed so loud, I think all of the neighbors heard me. We even had a thank-you prayer.

More: How are you holding up?
SAR: I am honored.

More: Were you aware of what this procedure entails before saying yes?
SAR: The doctors sent me a packet of information. I am told five days before the procedure I will be given injections to spur cell growth. Then I will be hooked up to a machine for three to five hours with a needle in each arm, and the machine will separate out the stem cells. After that, the transfusion will be given to Robin.

More: I thought it was a painful procedure.
SAR: There is some discomfort, but you are under an anesthesic, which numbs the pain. The one I am doing is similar to dialysis.

More: Are you scared?
SAR: I am not scared. I am anxious. I want this to happen yesterday. I want my sister to be well. I am ready for this procedure. I am ready for my sister to get this behind her. I just want Robin to take a breath and not think about this anymore.

More: Has Robin scheduled a date so you know when your procedure will be?
SAR: No. Robin has to get rid of the bad cells first while I need to focus on staying healthy. I feel like a pregnant woman—I am staying healthy for two now!

More: Take me back to the day your sister told you she had myelodysplastic syndrome [MDS].
SAR: It was a difficult day for me and my whole family. Robin has been through so much. Going through the chemo was both difficult and painful. She even lost her hair. But Robin is a fighter, and she never gives up. I watched in awe as she took off her wig and showed the world she was not ashamed to be bald. She wore this uniform with pride.

More: How is your mom doing?
SAR: My mother often says without a test there is no testimony. Robin has been through one test, and now she is about to go through another. She had a big testimony coming through breast cancer and beating that. Now she will have another huge testimony when she comes through this MDS and becomes an MDS survivor. [Editor's note: Robin Roberts's mother passed away on August 30, 2012, several months after this interview took place.]

More: You can go into remission if you are diagnosed with MDS?
SAR: We have been flooded with e-mails from MDS survivors who say it will get better. Right now Robin is just beginning the climb. I am here for her, as are our siblings and mother.

More: Speaking of encouragement, in 1998 you wrote an inspirational book titled Going Live: An Anchorwoman Reports Good News. What words of inspiration are you giving your sister right now?
SAR: I tell her to pray, prepare and proceed. The power is on. My husband, Willie, while he was alive, told me that as I was preparing for a difficult assignment.

More: I read somewhere he passed away.
SAR: Yes. In 2002, Willie died of colon cancer. He did not know he should have gotten a colonoscopy. By the time he was 50 years old, Willie had stage 4 colon cancer. Robin was with me every step of the way during that painful time.

More: Were you and your siblings always this close?
SAR: We were military kids. We would always go to strange new places, get a new home on a strange new base and not know anyone. We only had each other. I remember my mom used to always have us eat meals by candlelight. She thought it was a nice thing to do because of all the changing we had to constantly do. She wanted the room to glow and remind us about our unity.

More: Cancer took the life of your husband and is now hurting your sister. How come you are not angry about what this horrible disease has done to your family?
SAR: Things happen to everyone. Life is a journey. There are hills and there are valleys. You have to walk by faith.

More: Words to live by.
SAR: I don’t know why Robin has had to go through cancer not once but twice. I don’t know why Willie was taken from me so early in life. Not only had he just turned 50, but we had just celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary.

More: How awful for you.
SAR: You know, right after his funeral I had this dream about Willy. I asked him, “Why did you leave me?” He had the most peaceful look on his face when he replied, “This was just a health thing. But if I knew then what I know now, I would have never worried about anything.”

More: And today?
SAR: In 2007, after five years of being a widow, I remarried a wonderful man, Ron Nabonne.

More: Congratulations. I love happy endings.
SAR: That is what I mean. Life is full of surprises. I have seen the shadows of life, but I have also seen the dazzling sunlight.

More: Because Robin is adored by millions of people and the outpouring of emotion has been overwhelming, you are using this opportunity to raise awareness of a very important cause called Be the Match. Tell me about that.
SAR: is the place where you can get all of your questions answered. It tells you about the importance of donating, why you should donate and how easy it is to do. You can read testimony from people who donated and received bone marrow. Most people will never find bone marrow from their own family, so the more people that join, the better. This is so vital, because there are millions of people who are dying and can be saved if others would just say yes.

More: Who is an ideal candidate?
SAR: They are looking for people between the ages of 18 and 60. They are also urging minorities to apply because they really need them to sign up. Bone marrow can only be found in one’s ethnic group. African Americans, Native Americans, Asians and Hispanics are underrepresented. I hope people will get registered in case one of their own family members finds themselves in need of this service.

More: In addition to promoting this cause, you founded a charity called Each One, Save One.
SAR: Yes. I cofounded that organization, and it is a mentorship program. We train, help and screen mentors in our schools and mentor a child for an hour a week.

More: Sounds as if you are on a mission here too.
SAR: Yes [laughs]. My two missions in life are bone marrow and mentoring! That should fill up my plate.

Click here to read Joan Lunden Takes on Yet Another Role: Family Caregiver.

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First Published Mon, 2012-06-25 11:44

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