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Robin Roberts’s Recent Diagnosis of Myelodysplastic Syndrome

Dear Members of the Breastcancer.org Community,

All of us feel shocked and upset by Robin Roberts’s new diagnosis of Myelodysplastic Syndrome, a rare complication of chemotherapy. This past Monday, she shared her situation with her Good Morning America family — and the sympathetic reaction in our Breastcancer.org community has been immediate and extremely touching. As co-survivors, we all feel an extra special connection to her. I’ve been Robin’s guest on Good Morning America multiple times. We’re sad and troubled, worried about her, and also worried about whether this could happen to us.

Plus, given how rare this type of problem is, few of us know what this diagnosis means, what’s involved with her treatment, and her chances of a full recovery.

Myelodysplastic Syndrome is a disease of the bone marrow, which is located inside certain bones. The bone marrow is responsible for making your blood cells, including:

  • white cells that fight infection
  • red cells that pick up oxygen in your lungs and deliver it to your tissues
  • platelets that help your blood to clot and prevent bleeding

These cells are sensitive to chemotherapy, and their levels can drop after each cycle of chemotherapy. Special growth factors can minimize their decline. But after treatment is finished, your blood levels recover and get back to normal patterns of growth.

Rarely, chemotherapy can spark a serious complication in the bone marrow long after it’s been given, called Myelodysplastic Syndrome. Cyclophosphamide (also known as Cytoxan), a common form of chemotherapy used to treat breast cancer, is most closely associated with this rare problem. Radiation therapy can increase this rare risk a little bit. Myelodysplastic Syndrome means that the bone marrow contains abnormal cells, such as too many immature blood cells or defective mature cells. There may not be enough normal blood cells available to protect the body from infection and bleeding and to provide enough oxygen to fuel the tissues. Myelodysplastic Syndrome is different from other conditions that you may of heard of, like aplastic anemia — when the bone marrow is empty — and leukemia, when the bone marrow is replaced by abnormal blood cells that are growing out of control.

Treatment is necessary because the abnormal bone marrow cells may fail to perform their job, putting Robin’s life at risk. Also, Myelodysplastic Syndrome can get worse and turn into leukemia. The goal of treatment is to get rid of her abnormal bone marrow cells with chemotherapy and to replace them with new healthy bone marrow cells from a donor. This process is called bone marrow transplantation. Lucky for Robin, she has a sister who is a perfect donor. This means that her bone marrow cells are very similar to Robin’s and so it’s likely that Robin’s body will accept them and not fight and destroy them.Robin announced that she started chemo this week.

All of us would like Robin to know that we care about her and that we wish her only the very best. We want to be a source of expertise, encouragement, and inspiration throughout her journey and beyond.

She announced that she plans to work throughout her treatment, as she is able. We know what a super-woman she is, but we also hope that she doesn’t push too hard and that she takes the time she needs to stay well. Along the way, we will follow closely with you and continue to send her our hopes and best wishes.

We invite you to share your thoughts, concerns, and well wishes in the comments area below.

Marisa Weiss, M.D. is the founder, president and guiding force behind Breastcancer.org, the world's most trafficked online resource for medically reviewed breast health and breast cancer information, reaching over 8 million visitors per year. A breast cancer oncologist with over twenty years of active practice in the Philadelphia region, Dr. Weiss is regarded as a visionary advocate for her innovative and steadfast approach to informing, empowering, and treating patients with breast cancer.

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