The Unbreakable Robin Quivers

How Howard Stern’s co-host beat cancer, stayed on the air and found the meaning of life

October 23, 2013 6:00 AM ET
Robin Quivers, RS 1955
Robin Quivers
Peter Yang

One day last May, shortly after a 12-hour operation that had surgeons flipping her around "like Cirque du Soleil" as they struggled to remove a grapefruit-size tumor and surrounding cancerous tissue from her pelvis, Robin Quivers finally discovered the limits of Howard Stern's sense of humor. She had woken up around midnight in a darkened recovery room, lying immobile for seven hours, listening to other patients' bells and buzzers going off, pondering possibilities. At 7:30 a.m., a doctor finally came in to let her know that the surgery had been successful. She would have to wear a colostomy bag, but only for a few months. Also, she no longer had a uterus.

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"I'm like a tranny now!" was Quivers' first thought, an idea she found sufficiently hilarious to share with Stern on the phone. "He didn't think it was so funny," she says. "He was like, 'No, you're not!' He was not in a laughing mood about the realities of what was going on."

Quivers had no idea she was sick until 10 days earlier, when she had rushed to the doctor with an alarming symptom: She suddenly found herself unable to urinate. The problem, she learned, was a cancerous mass pressing on her bladder. During the surgery, doctors were initially pessimistic as they discovered how far the cancer had spread. They emerged every couple of hours to share increasingly dire forecasts with Quivers' friend Susan Schneidermesser, who passed on the updates via phone to Quivers' other friends. None of them took the news harder than Stern, who had threatened to quit his show if his broadcast partner of 32 years didn't make it. "He cried like I've never heard a grown man cry in my life," says Schneidermesser. "That man just cried like a baby every single time I spoke to him."

Quivers never tried her cancer jokes on a larger audience. From the safety of her glass booth on The Howard Stern Show, she had, over the years, revealed her use of meat and vegetables as masturbatory aids; shared the size of the largest penis she'd ever seen (10 inches, if you must know); recounted the time she engaged in anal sex, bent over a bathroom sink, during an encounter with a near stranger; flashed her bra during a game of strip Jeopardy; laughed through dozens of songs written in tribute to the glories of her breasts (including "Robin's Tits Are Big and Brown," sung to the tune of "Allentown"). With a battle for her life looming, however, discretion at last prevailed.

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"The first week we were back on the air after the surgery, I talked to Howard, and I said, 'What do we do about this?'" Quivers recalls. "'Should we tell people what's going on?'" But she found herself breaking down in tears at the thought of it.

"Robin, you don't have to do that," Stern told her. "You don't owe anybody anything. We don't have to address it at all."

So for 17 months, as Quivers endured chemo and radiation, they didn't mention any of it. "We left people at 'Robin can't pee,'" she says. The whole time, Quivers stayed out of the studio, broadcasting sometimes from her Manhattan apartment, sometimes from the Jersey Shore.

This summer, she bought a new, seven-bedroom estate on the southern tip of New Jersey, a present to herself after all she'd been through. It comes with a private dock for her boat and jet ski (she loves the water, though she's never actually learned to swim), and the property has a dreamlike, serene beauty, from the flower-lined driveway to the unbroken open spaces of the ground floor. "That house is a healing womb," says Quivers' friend Naomi Pabst, who works as an "intuitive" – i.e., a psychic. "It's freakishly fabulous." The architecture is whimsically nautical: Many of the windows are portholes, and the front section is modeled after a lighthouse. On a clear and bright late-September day, Quivers is sitting in a big purple-striped chair in her second-floor office, where translucent cream-colored curtains let in the autumn light. Perched on a glass-topped desk to her right are a serious-looking microphone and a pair of headphones that are plugged into a tiny mixing board connected to a rack of studio gear. That setup, plus an iPad with a Skype connection, is all she's needed to do the show from here since July. The room, like the rest of the house, is minimally decorated, with nearly empty bookshelves – she's had other priorities.

"Over the years," she says, "people have often said to us that they were going through some horrible thing in their life – maybe the worst thing that had ever happened, or that they could think would ever happen – and that, somehow, in that state, we made them laugh. And I was like, 'That's a wonderful calling.'"

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