Cokie Roberts wore about as many hats as her full name, Mary Martha Corinne Morrison Claiborne Roberts: “Legendary journalist.” “Best-selling author. “Emmy award winner.” A “founding mother of NPR.” She was all these but there’s one more moniker that resonated with me and many, many others: “cancer survivor.”
News of her death — from “complications from breast cancer,” as her family said in a statement — came unexpectedly this week. Veteran news anchor and breast cancer survivor Linda Ellerbee described her feelings of grief, and rage, in a CNN op-ed: “We used what we knew to fight for our lives, and for the lives of other women. We pointed out early and often that nobody knew much about breast cancer. We protested. Maybe we changed something. Maybe we didn’t.”
Make no mistake, Roberts “changed something.” In full view of her ABC News audience (and on the air at NPR), she lived publicly with breast cancer for 17 years. That’s a victory, even if she died too soon. Roberts showed cancer survivors and everyone else time and again how to live — her head held high, albeit sometimes covered by a wig — with a disease that will claim more than 40,000 women’s lives in 2019.
When Roberts was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002, the 15-year-survival rate was about 70%; today it is closer to 80%, according to the American Cancer Society. The decrease is thought “to be the result of treatment advances, earlier detection through screening, and increased awareness,” says BreastCancer.org. Credit Roberts with being part of a pink wave of breast cancer survivors who advocated for screening and greater public attention.
When she learned of her diagnosis at age 58, the ABC News journalist wasted little time before coming out publicly about her illness to Lloyd Grove at the Washington Post. Her message to other women was clear: “I am very religious about annual mammograms and annual visits to the gynecologist, and I was furious during the period when people were being told that under age 50, they did not need to have mammograms.” Roberts said she had her first mammogram at age 49, nine years before her diagnosis. “They do save lives,” she emphasized in the Post interview.
Before her diagnosis Roberts was, as Grove wrote, “a longtime breast cancer cause celeb who for years has urged women to get regular mammograms.” In a statement made about the time of her diagnosis, Roberts said: “Fortunately, in the course of my efforts to inform others about the disease, I learned about the benefits of early detection. Now I am the beneficiary of that information.” She quickly became a missionary for breast cancer awareness.
In July of 2002, Roberts underwent a lumpectomy, reporting that the cancer had been caught early and she expected to get a clean bill of health after six months of chemotherapy. She said she still planned to cover the midterm elections that fall, even though she’d be in the middle of treatment.
In fact, she did cover the midterms, in full view of millions of viewers. “I felt, first going on the air in a wig that I looked really goofy. And election night 2002, it was my best wig. It was the human hair wig, not the synthetic wig. I thought it just looked awful. So I don’t know. It’s hard,” she said in a subsequent interview with the Television Academy Foundation. No matter. The unassailable message to those living with cancer: you can also work with this disease. Sure, there are adjustments to be made. Roberts did it in a wig. I stayed on the job during treatment for testicular cancer, when I was in my twenties, with greatly thinned hair and a hat for every season. I also kept track of the nearest restroom — just in case of chemo-related nausea. Folks, yes we can.
Roberts’ courage and outspokenness inspired me, and many others. In a report for Nightline, Roberts interviewed a young TV writer, Jessica Queller, who had just learned she was at high risk of developing breast cancer. On air, Roberts explained: “And after you got that news, we should say here, I was one of the people you contacted, because you are a very good friend of my daughter-in-law. You were in my son’s wedding, and you knew that I had had breast cancer.” Queller said it was Roberts’ warmth that made it possible for her to talk about something so intimate, so painful. “At the time, I don’t remember feeling very brave, but I remember Cokie continually telling me that I was very brave,” Queller said.
In the years since I was first diagnosed with cancer, I’ve learned you need to be brave to recognize bravery.
In a remembrance, NPR’s Nina Totenberg, another of the network’s “mothers,” said that Roberts’ cancer recurred in 2016. “For the past three years, as [Cokie] battled the return of a cancer vanquished some 14 years earlier, she carried on, always with that infectious laugh,” Totenberg reported after her death this week. “She gave speeches, appeared on TV and radio, and even called me a few days ago from the hospital to get a ‘fill’ on my reporting about the new NPR president. Indeed, she was planning to go to Houston for the debates last week, until her disease finally trumped her grit.”
This past summer, Roberts addressed the recurrence after viewers had become concerned. “I have had some health issues which required treatment that caused weight loss. I am doing fine,” she said in a statement after an appearance on ABC’s “This Week.” Looking ahead, she continued: “I very much appreciate the kind comments I have received and expect to be, as I have been, working away in the days and months to come, covering what promises to be a fascinating election. I am grateful to everyone.”
That gratitude was returned by many. As Robin Roberts, the Good Morning American host who is also a cancer survivor, tweeted shortly after Roberts’ death:
Been searching for the words to convey my feelings about the passing of a beloved friend and colleague, Cokie Roberts. At a loss to describe her impact…her wisdom…her strength…her humor…her endless attributes… https://t.co/DFrFBYaLkw
— Robin Roberts (@RobinRoberts) September 17, 2019
As we remember Cokie Roberts, let’s not forget to include “cancer survivor” along with her many other triumphs.
Steven Petrow is a columnist for USA Today, a contributing writer to the Washington Post, a past president of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, and author of several books.