“Good Morning America’s” Robin Roberts develops Myelodysplastic Syndrome after Breast Cancer

Good Morning America co-host Robin Roberts is having a roller coaster year.

At the same time that GMA beat the Today show in the weekly ratings war for the first time in over 16 years, 51-year-old Roberts got the news that she was suffering from a blood and bone marrow disorder.

Roberts was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007 . She underwent surgery, chemotherapy and 6 weeks of radiation therapy. However, she returned to the anchor desk  only a couple of weeks after having her surgery, wearing a wig  because she “didn’t want to distract viewers from the news.”

Roberts was concerned about extreme fatigue, more than she has previously experienced with her early morning wake-up. She under went blood tests and a bone marrow biopsy and was diagnosed with a disorder called myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS). It is believed that may be the result of the radiation therapy she received to treat her breast cancer.

Today she released a statement:

As many of you know, 5 years ago I beat breast cancer.  I’ve always been a fighter, and with all of your prayers and support, a winner.

Sometimes the treatment for cancer can cause other serious medical problems. Today, I want to let you know that I’ve been diagnosed with MDS or myelodysplastic syndrome.  It’s a disease of the blood and bone marrow and was once known as preleukemia.

My doctors tell me I’m going to beat this — and I know it’s true.

Roberts will undergo a stem cell transplant. Her older sister, Sally Ann Roberts, an anchor for WWL-TV in New Orleans, is an excellent match, and will be the bone marrow donor.

As she is younger and healthier than many who develop this disease, coupled with having a good bone marrow match, her doctors are saying that her prognosis is good.

Roberts hopes to use this opportunity to increase public awareness of the desperate need for bone marrow donors, especially in the African-American community.

 What is Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS)?

Myelodysplastic syndromes are a group of diseases in which the bone marrow does not make enough healthy blood cells.

Normally, the bone marrow makes blood stem cells (immature cells) that develop into mature blood cells over time. A blood stem cell may become a myeloid stem cell or a lymphoid stem cell. The lymphoid stem cell develops into a white blood cell. The myeloid stem cell develops into one of three types of mature blood cells:

  • Red blood cells that carry oxygen and other materials to all tissues of the body.
  • White blood cells that fight infection and disease.
  • Platelets that help prevent bleeding by causing blood clots to form.

Risk factors for myelodysplastic syndromes include the following:

  • Being male or white.
  • Being older than 60 years.
  • Past treatment with chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
  • Being exposed to certain chemicals, including tobacco smoke, pesticides, and solvents such as benzene.
  • Being exposed to heavy metals, such as mercury or lead.

Myelodysplastic syndromes often do not cause early symptoms and are sometimes found during a routine blood test.

Other symptoms can include:

  • Shortness of breath.
  • Weakness or feeling tired.
  • Having skin that is paler than usual
  • Easy bruising or bleeding.
  • Petechiae (flat, pinpoint spots under the skin caused by bleeding).
  • Fever or frequent infections.

What is a stem cell transplant?

Stem cell transplant is a method of giving chemotherapy and replacing blood-forming cells destroyed by the treatment. Stem cells (immature blood cells) are removed from the blood or bone marrow of a donor and are frozen for storage. After the chemotherapy is completed, the stored stem cells are thawed and given back to the patient through an infusion. These re-infused stem cells grow into (and restore) the body’s blood cells.

Our best wishes to Robin for a speedy recovery!

Michele R. Berman, M.D. was Clinical Director of The Pediatric Center, a private practice on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. from 1988-2000, and was named Outstanding Washington Physician by Washingtonian Magazine in 1999. She was a medical internet pioneer having established one of the first medical practice websites in 1997. Dr. Berman also authored a monthly column for Washington Parent Magazine.

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