Read an Excerpt
You Want Me to Do What?
I’ve never been a big believer in fate. Too many awful things happen to too many wonderful people for me to accept that there’s a larger plan for “the greater good.” But that said, I have to admit, the events that led to my diagnosis all felt very fated.
I have so many reflections that begin with what if and thank God. What if I had stayed at my previous job at NBC and never switched to ABC? Thank God I jumped networks. What if I hadn’t become a larger part of the Good Morning America family, which happened only because of an unexpected twist in GMA host Robin Roberts’s second cancer battle? I’d filled in for Robin every other week for nearly a year while she was on leave for a bone marrow transplant to fight myelodysplastic syndrome. Thank God I was the one who got to step in. If these things hadn’t happened, I might never have received the email that ultimately saved my life.
It was late September 2013. I was in the rural Pennsylvania home of Marie Monville, a sweet, pretty young mother of three whose husband had walked into a quiet Amish schoolhouse seven years earlier and gunned down ten little girls, killing five of them and then himself. Marie had written a memoir about her life before and after the shooting, and we were about to do her first network-television interview for ABC News. She had remarried, but she still lived in Amish Country. My producer, Kaitlyn Folmer, and I had driven out the night before and stayed at the Hotel Hershey, a few miles from Kaitlyn’s childhood home. It’s stunningly beautiful country, with horse-drawn carriages and pastoral farms—the last place you’d expect to find such a tragedy.
On the morning of the interview, I was still fine-tuning my questions and follow-ups as the crew finalized their camera positions and lighting. They placed Marie in front of the stone fireplace, and when I saw her there, I was struck by how incongruous it all seemed. This poised young woman in this pleasant house in bucolic Middle America had gone through a hell I couldn’t begin to understand.
We were about to start rolling when I glanced at my cellphone and saw a cryptic message from Good Morning America producer Sandra Aiken: “Can you call me? I have a delicate assignment I need to talk to you about.”
Standing in Marie Monville’s kitchen, I dialed into what we call the GMA rim, and when I was transferred to Sandra she seemed just the slightest bit flustered. “We’re going big for breast cancer awareness next month,” she said. “We’re going to ‘Go Pink’ in a major way, and we want to show women having live mammograms in our mammovan in Times Square.” She paused. “We’d also like to have a member of our GMA team participate, and we’d like you to be that anchor.”
My reaction was visceral. No way, no how. Never gonna happen, I thought. I knew that on-air medical screenings by members of the media, like Katie Couric’s colonoscopy on the Today show in 2000, raised awareness and saved lives. But Katie had a personal connection to colon cancer. Her husband Jay Monahan had succumbed to the disease, and she wanted to demystify a lifesaving test that many people avoid because it’s scary and uncomfortable. This was different. I’ve always prided myself on authenticity in my work, and this wasn’t a genuine personal cause for me.
“Sandra, I don’t think this is something I’m prepared to do,” I said. “I’ve never had a mammogram before, so to have my first in front of millions of people isn’t ideal.”
“I understand completely,” she said. “Let’s talk about it when you get back to the city. Can you hold off on a decision until then?”
I agreed to that much, but nothing more.
The interview was as intense and emotional as I’d imagined it would be. Just a few years earlier, Marie had enjoyed what must have looked like a perfect life, with beautiful children and a loving husband. But then she had a miscarriage, which seemed to affect her husband even more than it did her. He blamed God, and so he decided to take it out on God’s people—the Amish. She told us about the day he made a special effort to run out to the bus stop to say “goodbye” and “I love you” to their children. Only later would she realize why. This was the morning he had planned to execute his rampage. He had already purchased the ammunition and the rope to tie up his victims.
After reliving all this with Marie, I was glad to have the three-hour drive back to the city to decompress. Thinking about those schoolgirls made me want to run home to mine. I was once again reminded how lucky I was to have my family, my life, and my job. Which is when I remembered Sandra’s call.
As Kaitlyn drove, I called my husband and my mom and talked it out with them. My main concern was that it might be seen as exploitative or “stunt-ish.” I was afraid I would take heat from my colleagues and other media outlets for being part of a story that didn’t feel like it had much to do with me. I also imagined how vulnerable I would feel with millions of people watching me do something every other woman on the planet does only in the privacy of her doctor’s office. I didn’t want to expose myself, literally or figuratively. They both agreed that having a mammogram on live TV was probably not a good idea. Then I decided to call my longtime agent and friend, Henry Reisch.
“Henry, you’re never going to believe the phone call I just got,” I said, and blurted it all out.
“Whoa. I was not expecting that,” Henry said. “Are you going to do it?”
I quickly answered, “Well, I don’t want to, but I’m calling you to figure out if that’s the right answer.”
Henry suggested he ask around his office to see what the reaction was and we could go from there.
I was willing to listen to a few unbiased opinions, but my mind was made up. I had every intention to politely pass on this particular assignment.
The next morning was Friday, September 27, and Sandra was waiting for me when I walked off the set. “Can we talk?” she asked.
I was filling in for Josh Elliott, GMA’s news anchor, who was in Afghanistan. Filling in was a large part of my job at the time, serving as the news division’s utility infielder. If anyone from Good Morning America was off, I was on. If a host was missing, I hosted. If a newsreader was away, I read the news. Wherever there was a hole, I plugged it.
At the time, I had a temporary dressing room on the second floor of our Times Square offices, just above the studio where we broadcast GMA. Each of the anchors has a sanctuary where we prepare for the show, get our hair and makeup done, and speed-read a half dozen or so newspapers and our scripts. Sandra walked me up to mine, closed the door behind us, and explained why the producers had chosen me for this assignment.
“You’re forty,” she said. “And you’ve never had a mammogram. That puts you right in the middle of the demographic we’re hoping to reach.”
“Well, not only have I not had a mammogram,” I said, “but I purposefully lost the prescription for it that my doctor wrote me a year ago.” I made air quotes when I said “lost.”
As soon as my ob-gyn had handed it to me the previous October, I stuck the prescription in my purse and forgot about it. Every now and then, as I was digging in my bag for my wallet or my keys, I would find that crumpled piece of paper and feel a pang of guilt for not scheduling the test. Eventually, it conveniently disappeared, probably thrown out with receipts and gum wrappers. I could say that, between my job and my kids, I was simply too busy, but the blunt truth was that I just didn’t want to deal with it. Sitting there with Sandra, I still didn’t feel like I needed a mammogram.
Sandra’s eyes lit up. “That is exactly why you have to do this!”
I wasn’t convinced, but I agreed to think about it a little more.
After Sandra left my dressing room, my day was far from over. It’s my job to stick around and be ready to go on the air in the event of breaking news big enough for us to interrupt regular programming. I also have to update the show for the West Coast if anything changes or develops between the time we go live in the East and when we air out West.
There was no breaking news, so I was answering emails when I saw one from ABC’s executive editorial producer, Santina Leuci. “If you get a mammogram in the mammovan, I will, too,” it said. “Promise. Let’s do it together.” Santina is a force at ABC News. She is in charge of booking all the big newsmakers for the network and she essentially works 24/7, keeping us competitive. I laughed as I read the email. I could see it was not going to be easy to keep saying no.
Actually, I was starting to warm up to the idea, but first I wanted to talk to Robin Roberts, a breast cancer survivor—though she prefers the term “thriver”—to see what she thought about all of this. Robin’s dressing room was just a few steps from mine. I knocked on her door, the one with the Robin’s Nest sign on it, and she said, “Come in.”
She had already changed into her sweatpants and hoodie. Nobody is too formal coming and going from the studio—it’s more like yoga pants, tank tops, and jeans. I was still in my skirt and high heels, which at least meant that I was eye-to-eye with her. (Robin is five foot ten; I’m five five.)
Her space was always dimly lit and inviting, but I wanted to make this quick. Though she’d always been cordial, we hardly knew each other. I’d been at ABC for over a year but in large part filling in for Robin, and she’d been back full-time for about a month. In September she’d passed the one-year anniversary of the stem cell transplant she underwent to treat bone marrow cancer, a disease she’d developed as a side effect of chemo.
“You’re a breast cancer survivor,” I started. “And I know that it’s an important cause for you. . . .” I hesitated for a moment, but then I remembered how gracious she’d always been, the notes she’d sent to congratulate me on interviews I’d done. “They asked me to do a mammogram on live television on October first,” I blurted out.
She laughed and said, “Oh, you’re the one they asked!”
“That’s right. Lucky me.”
“I’m glad. I think you’re a good choice.”
“That’s funny, because I don’t feel that way at all. But maybe you can talk me into it. I have no connection to the disease,” I explained, “so it just doesn’t seem right. I mean, if my mom had had breast cancer, or if I had a sister or grandmother who’d gone through it, I’d feel like there was a reason to choose me. I’m afraid it’s going to look like I’m trying to grab the limelight. I don’t want to distract from the message.”
Robin looked at me with a clear kindness that put me at ease. She asked, “How old are you?”
“And you’ve never had a mammogram.”
“Amy, that’s the whole point. Listen. Nobody knows better than I do how uncomfortable it can be having people watching you go through something medical. But the power of saving even one life is so remarkable, you’ll never regret it.” She paused, then smiled her amazing smile. “And I can pretty much guarantee it will save a life. Just by you walking into that mammovan and demystifying this test, someone will find out they have cancer who wouldn’t have otherwise.”
I was running out of objections. “But with no family history . . .”
“Amy, eighty percent of women who have breast cancer have no family history.”
That’s when I got the chills. I get chills a lot, and they usually serve as my internal barometer, forecasting my next move. And that statistic sent a wave from my head to my toes.
“I didn’t know that,” I said.
“See! You can share that, too. You can be that person. You can say, Hey, look, I don’t have a family history, I’m forty, I feel healthy, I’m going to do this anyway. I’m going to do this for me; I’m going to do this for my kids. I’m going to do this for my family.”
Now I was nodding. Such is the power of Robin Roberts.
“I totally understand if you don’t want to,” she said. “And I support you either way. But I just want you to think about it in those terms.”
For a moment I thought I was going to cry, but then I laughed instead. I was surprised at how emotional I was. On some level, I must have known this was a watershed moment.
“Can I give you a hug?” I said. “You just made up my mind. In fact, you made it easy.”
“Sure,” she said, and I gave her a big squeeze. I knew I’d made the right decision, because it felt right. A weight had been lifted off me, the pressure relieved.
I went back to my dressing room and sent an email to Sandra, saying I’d do the mammogram, but I added one request. I asked if I could tape a message to air right before the procedure, explaining why I’d agreed to do the test on live TV.
I still felt like I had to explain myself, perhaps even defend my decision, and here’s why: I had spent nearly twenty years busting my butt, working eighteen-hour shifts, flying all over the world at a moment’s notice, and giving up my weekends and vacations for this career, and I was afraid to make a mistake. I was terrified that someone would think I was insincere—because until my conversation with Robin, I didn’t really believe I needed a mammogram, and to go on live television and encourage every woman my age to do a test that I had no prior intention of taking felt false. I wanted to be as up front as possible.
Once I’d made the decision, I put it all aside and spent a gorgeous fall weekend with my family at our home in the Hudson Valley, about an hour and a half north of the city. On Monday, Kaitlyn, GMA producer Anna Wild, and I took a crew out to do “woman on the street” interviews. “When do you think you should get your first mammogram?” we asked. It was unbelievable. No one knew. Their guesses were all over the place: fifty, thirty-five, thirty, twenty-five.