Cancer Isn't One Size Fits All

Robin Roberts on living and working with cancer, with help from family, friends.

October 7, 2008, 5:25 PM

Oct. 8, 2008— -- You hear people say cancer is a journey, and I never quite understood what they meant. I was like, "What do you mean, 'journey'?" I was feeling fine. I didn't feel sick. The only thing I knew was that I had a lump. And it was cancer. And I had decisions to make.

I decided to continue working during treatment and reveal my diagnosis on the air.

It was a hard decision, and my mother really helped me, because she was the one who basically said, "We don't roll like that. That's now how we do it."

She said, "In our family, it's been about being of service to others. It's not about us."

Click Here to read an excerpt from Roberts' book. You may visit the ABC News store to buy a copy of Robin Roberts' "Nightline" special.

At "Good Morning America," my other family, we don't take it lightly that we're invited into people's homes to have breakfast with them every morning. And I didn't want viewers to hear it from anyone else.

The first time I was told, "You're a survivor," was very early on. My doctor said that, and I know I was just looking at him, thinking, "You've got to be kidding me. I'm feeling anything but."

Surviving Chemo

The idea was to have surgery and get rid of the tumor and get on with my life, until they got a look at it. Once they got it under the microscope, they said the tumor was nasty.

And I remember going, "What do you mean, nasty?"

I was told that I would need chemotherapy and then radiation. And that was the first and only time that I said, "I may die." I never thought of it before then.

What helped me to get that thought out of my mind was to keep working. I was craving normalcy. I tried to tell my oncologist, "OK, tell you what, this is how it's gonna go, doctor: So, I'll have chemo on Friday, rest on the weekend, and I'll be back sitting next to Diane on Monday."

I read everything I could about chemotherapy and side effects, but until you are sitting in that chemo chair, the bottom line is you have no idea.

During the first treatment I was sitting there saying, "OK, I'm ready!" And they gave me the chemo and I thought, "That's it? OK."

The second day -- OK.

Third day -- not so good.

Fourth day -- uh-oh.

I could fool myself for only so long. I was starting to look like a person fighting cancer, and I was told during that time I would most likely lose my hair because of the type of chemo I was receiving.

Sure enough, it happened almost like clockwork, shortly after the second treatment. I was in the bathroom and my hair was starting to come out in clumps, and I just slithered down to the floor and I was just bawling.

Cancer Isn't One Size Fits All

I became obsessed with my hair. Yeah, it's meaningless, in the scheme of things, but I've heard women say that it's more devastating to lose their hair than their breasts. In so many ways, it frames who we are. You know, today, you're wearing a ponytail. Next day you have your hair down. You get to change how you look, it's how you feel, it's a part of who you are. It expresses who you are.

But I knew I was doing what I needed to get healthy again. So many people who have walked this journey before me said, "Shave your head. Don't go through this." But you know what? Sometimes you appreciate the advice people give you, but sometimes you have to almost experience it yourself.

I never thought I would shave my head, but I did. I decided I would be the one to do it, and I felt very in control at that moment. I felt strong, and I was much more comfortable without hair than I thought I'd be. But at the time I was convinced it would be a distraction to the audience, so I wore a wig on the air.

From 7 a.m. until 9 a.m., my hair and makeup team put "Humpty Dumpty" back together again. From 7 until 9, I got to look like me. It was what I felt was best for me to get through this. I can't emphasize enough that cancer isn't one size fits all.

For some reason, I decided to go to the Middle East with the first lady, Laura. Bush. She had invited me. I asked my doctors and they said, "Well, it's a bit ambitious. People don't normally travel to Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia in the middle of chemotherapy." And I was kind of looking at them like, "Yeah, and ...?"

It was easier getting permission from the doctors than it was getting permission from my mom to go on the trip. But she understood the importance of it to me. I had to take the entire week off following the trip. … I couldn't get out of bed. I was spent.

Not the Last Chapter

I couldn't imagine going through this journey without my "GMA" family and my ABC News family. And from the moment I let people know about my diagnosis, support started pouring in, most of it from people who knew firsthand what I was going through.

The homemade items, the prayer shawls, and the number of people in the audience who say, "I prayed for you," … I've lost count.

On the last day of chemo, I shed tears of joy. Because of the chemo, my body just wasn't mine anymore. I was hurting so much. So it's kind of nice not to have any thought of that.

"It's our tradition whenever you finish chemotherapy, you get bubbles," the nurse said.

So she blew bubbles, and everybody cheered, but it wasn't over. The next step: 6½ of radiation every day.

"When they take out the tumor sometimes there are cells left over at the edges of the scar," the nurse explained.

Radiation was very hard on me, fatigue-wise, but after seven months, my treatment was finally over.

There was one more thing on my mind. The day came when I realized that I was in essence hiding behind my wig on the air.

I'd been telling myself that the audience couldn't handle seeing me bald, but you know what? Maybe it was me who was having a problem showing them what I really looked like. I was just holding on to the way I looked prior to cancer.

Now I realize this is me. I look in the mirror. You have cancer. You have cancer. Look at you. You're here. You're living and working with cancer.

I flipped my wig and I shook it off. I am not my hair; I am the soul that lies within.

Now I've walked this path, and I have some insight. I don't think about it when I wake up -- it's not the first thing I think about.

I've also got a lot of pink in my office these days. I never was much for pink before all this, but it's my favorite color now.

This is a chapter in my life, that's it. It is not my life story, and it will not be the last chapter in my life story.

ABC News producers Roxanna Sherwood and Eric Johnson contributed to this report.

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