Robin Roberts' return to work spotlights resuming a career after cancer

This Jan. 24, 2013 photo released by ABC shows Robin Roberts on "Good Morning America," in New York. Roberts will be back on the job at the "Good Morning America" anchor desk on Feb. 20. Her return will be five months to the day since her bone marrow transplant to treat a rare blood disorder. (AP Photo/ABC, Ida Mae Astute) Ida Mae Astute

Almost six months after she needed a bone marrow transplant, Good Morning America anchor Robin Roberts is back to work.

"I've been waiting 174 days to say this: 'Good morning, America,'" she said, opening up Wednesday's episode.

Roberts announced that she had been diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), previously known as pre-leukemia, in June 2012. MDS occurs when stem cells inside bone marrow do not become healthy blood cells. Instead, the immature cells -- called blasts -- take over and leave less room for healthy cells to form in the bone marrow. This makes the person more susceptible to infection, anemia or easy bleeding.

While MDS typically occurs in people over 60, those who have had chemotherapy or radiation therapy or have been exposed to certain chemicals are at a higher risk. Roberts had previously battled breast cancer in 2007.

"We have to take a step back and really respect Robin Roberts for having the courage to talk about her treatments and going back to work," Dr. Mikkael Sekeres, director of the Leukemia Program at Cleveland Clinic's Taussig Institute in Ohio, said to CBSNews.com.

While Sekeres did not treat Roberts specifically, he has treated patients with MDS.

"People who have secondary malignancies -- meaning they were treated for one cancer with chemotherapy or radiation, but the therapies from their first cancer causes the second cancer -- are a unique population," he said.

Sekeres said that having to battle two diseases takes a toll on the body, and people tend to have greater side effects. Blood counts take longer to recover from chemotherapy the second time around, he said. Also treatments for MDS, which attacks the patient's immune system, make a person more susceptible to infections and bleeding. The therapy can make it the immune system worse before it restores a person's bone marrow function.

Even if people deal well with treatments, coming back to work is another beast. Sometimes patients don't realize how much they will have to change their lifestyle to accommodate the state they are in after battling the illness, Sekeres said.

"The biggest challenge is trying to resume your normal life in the midst of being physically and emotionally debilitated and continuing to take medications and go to frequent doctor's visits," he stated.

Some people may assume that they can return to their life and work eight to 10-hour days, five to six days a week just like before their diagnosis.

Sekeres suggested starting out part-time and taking it slow to ease back into a normal routine. Patients should also be prepared that people will ask a lot of questions. They may not be trying to pry into your business but are interested in concerned in your well-being, he noted. Make sure bosses and other co-workers are aware that even though you are in remission or received treatment, that you may still need medication or visits to the doctor.

One more thing to note is though a patient's blood numbers may be good, his or her immune system might not be as strong as it used to be. This means they need to be more careful and not hang out with officemates who may be sick, or they may have to use anti-microbial soaps and hand sanitizers more often, Sekeres said.

"Because she just received the bone marrow transplant, her immune system is particularly dysfunctional, and she is at risk of getting infections even now that she's gone through a bone marrow transplant," he said of Roberts. "She'll have to be more aware when she gets to work."

One benefit that patients like Roberts have is that they know they can survive, Sekeres said.

"They (people with secondary malignancies) are unique in a really positive way in that they have been cancer patients in the past," he explained. "They have been through this. They often tell me they recognize how thankful they are to still be alive, and frankly to live long enough to have a second cancer."

"They have a special resilience both physically and emotional and recognize how they have to prepare for the treatment of their second cancer," he added.

The American Cancer Society offers more tips for returning to work after cancer treatment.

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