"Sometimes the treatment for cancer can cause other serious medical problems, and that is what I'm facing right now," Good Morning America host Robin Roberts told her audience Monday. "It is something called 'MDS,' myelodysplastic syndrome."
The announcement shocked TV viewers as Roberts revealed her treatment for breast cancer triggered another serious disease — one that will require a bone marrow transplant.
In Roberts' case, the chemicals in chemotherapy caused myelodysplastic syndrome. In those suffering from MDS, the blood cells lose genetic information over time.
"[That] prevents cells from maturing and growing up to be normal blood cells, and what's left is a malfunctioning, defective blood cell, which then hurts its patient because it can't do its job," said Baylor Dallas blood cancer specialist Dr. Edward Agura.
Agura said about five percent of breast cancer patients who take chemotherapy experience similar damage. But cancer therapy itself can cause a number of serious problems — from heart disease, liver damage, to cancer itself.
"Any cancer where you take chemotherapy or radiation can result in this bone marrow damage and myelodysplastia," Agura said.
"I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer," said Raye Birdsong, 69. In her case, chemo-caused MDS turned into leukemia.
Birdsong had a bone marrow transplant about two months ago.
Robin Roberts will need a transplant, too, an indication that her condition is likely not survivable without such aggressive treatment.
Roberts will get bone marrow from her older sister, Sally-Ann Roberts. She is an anchor with WFAA's sister station in New Orleans, WWL. Both are owned by Belo Corp.
Not all MDS cases require such drastic treatment. In fact, MDS is more common in elderly people whose blood cells are affected by environmental factors and age.
Raye Birdsong said she never thought about getting cancer from cancer therapy. But it's a treatment she would do again in a heartbeat.
"It gave me five years," Birdsong said, "And I'm still going, so..."
A sentiment echoed by Robin Roberts.