How Howard Stern’s co-host beat cancer, stayed on the air and found the meaning of life
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.
"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.
"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.'"
For the past year and a half, Quivers was one of those people. Her silly job – running through the news, laughing at Stern's online porn habit, quizzing celebrities about their sex lives, taking calls from the poor souls in the Wack Pack, mocking inept junior staffers – began to take on deeper meaning. "This whole time, the show gave me a reason to wake up in the morning," she says. "Gave me four hours of extreme separation from what was really going on in my life. The person on the air didn't have my illness. That was the four hours I got not to be sick."
Quivers' doctors told her in July that she's cancer-free: "Cured" was the word they used. After a lengthy seclusion, where her only real contact with the world was the radio show and doctors' visits, she's just starting to get her life back.
Yesterday was the first time in months she'd seen herself with a full head of hair – a curly, reddish-brown weave, to be specific. Until now, she didn't have enough of her own hair to attach it, and she wasn't ready to glue a wig to her head. She's expertly painted on eyebrows and applied "deep, dark mascara" to conceal the fact that she has no eyelashes. She's wearing a flowing blue top, ankle-length stretchy black pants and sparkly flip-flops showing off toenails painted blue this morning, in her first pedicure of the year. She looks healthy and happy – almost glowing, actually – if not quite the same as before the illness. "There was a freedom in knowing it doesn't matter anyway," she says. "You know, I walked out and I was like, 'I'm still Robin Quivers no matter how I look.'" At one point, she claims, she ventured out in Manhattan looking so rough that homeless guys didn't bother asking her for money.
The sun is beginning to set over the bay behind the house, and we walk up many flights of stairs to watch it from an outdoor deck. "You get that every night here," she says, hands at her hips, squinting at the auburn spectacle at water's edge.
She tends to appreciate each sunset a bit more lately. "I, quite frankly, am grateful for every day," says Quivers, who turned 61 in August. "I don't take anything for granted. When you've gone through something like this, you know you won't always be here, that something will be taking you out at some point. So what you do every day is important, from now on."
Quivers doesn't cry when she describes the moment, post-surgery, when a doctor told her that she still had only a 10 percent chance of survival. She doesn't cry when she tells an awful story about her colostomy bag coming loose in a movie theater. She doesn't cry when she describes leaving the Stern studio right before her operation, not knowing if she'd ever be back. She talks for a living, after all, and her big, mezzo-soprano voice stays steady. But when she speaks about the support that Howard Stern gave her through her illness, and tries to describe the depth of their friendship, she chokes up.
Throughout her illness, Stern was far more anxious than Quivers herself. "I felt horrible," she says, with her saxophone blast of a laugh. "Burdening him, you know? Because I know how anxious he is in life. But I knew it was OK, because he wanted to go through this with me, and he wouldn't have felt good having it go any other way. So I gave up on feeling bad about it. The day of the last show I did, Howard walks into the studio and goes, 'Oh, my God, how did you do last night? I didn't sleep a wink.' I was like, 'I slept like a baby!'" Again, the laugh.
Her relationship with Stern is quite simple: They're co-workers and best friends. Other men in her life have come and gone. Her longest relationship, with the law-enforcement officer known on the show as Mr. X, lasted a decade. But Stern stayed around. "Men have been intimidated by my relationship with Howard," she says. "You know, it's hard for them to imagine that they could be number one, seeing this relationship. He's amazing and he's powerful and they're always comparing themselves to him: 'How could she care for me when her best friend is this incredible juggernaut?' And that gets in the way."
There was one very brief moment when she thought she might be attracted to Stern – but that was based only on some flattering promo pictures, before she actually met him. "I was like, 'Oh, jeez, he's kind of good-looking,'" she says, with her loudest laugh yet. "'I might have to be careful around him.' But not once I knew him! It was never that way."
After Mr. X, Quivers dated Jim Florentine, a younger comedian who had asked her out on-air. By the time she got sick, that was long over. She doesn't flinch at the question of whether it was harder to face the illness without a partner. "Early on, we had gotten another batch of bad news, and Howard and I were both crying," she says. "And he's going, 'Robin, you must feel so alone.' And I was like, 'No, I don't. You won't let me alone!'" She roars.
"And he was like, 'What?' I was like, 'You're here all the time! You're at the other end of the phone. You know when my appointments are, and it's like you can see me, because you call me immediately after I enter the door to find out what went on last night. You are so with me.'
"And I have a couple of other friends who were also with me to that extent. So there was never a moment where I was sitting around going, 'Oh, my God, how do I get through this alone?' They never left me alone. I was like, 'Maybe I haven't figured out how to have a great relationship, but boy, do I have incredible friends.' They literally kept me alive."
When Quivers first heard that the surgery could leave her with a permanent colostomy bag, she decided that she would rather die. "I told Howard, 'I can't live like that.' He goes, 'Yes, you can!' And I'm like, 'Howard, I know me. I will be too depressed to ever have a decent life if I've got a permanent colostomy. So don't expect me to do that.' The hurt in his voice! I was like, 'Oh, crap, now I'm going to have to figure out how to live with a colostomy.'"
Quivers defines her role on The Howard Stern Show as being "the best dance partner," following Stern wherever he might go, pulling him back when necessary. "The handful of times that Robin hasn't been there over the years," says longtime producer Gary "Baba Booey" Dell'Abate, "it's a different show. There's a chemistry and a balance that goes out the window. When Robin's there, it's not like we're afraid to do stuff, but there is some level of decorum. Years ago she was out sick one day and we were just like horny men. It seemed like the teacher left the room during a test." That said, it's hard to imagine how the show could get more extreme than, say, the day a woman demonstrated female ejaculation so robustly that she sprayed Dell'Abate in the eye. Quivers was there for that one, safe and dry in her booth.
"Her intellect is three times everyone else's on the show," says head writer Fred Norris. "Most of the guys, their brains look like a charcoal drawing, and Robin's is more of like a 3D laser light show."
It's easy to see her as the superego to Stern's id, or the Jiminy Cricket on his shoulder, but that's not how she looks at it. "My attitude about the show was big-sisterly," she says. "I know who he really is – these silly things, these crass things, that's not who he really is, and I've got to remind him who he really is. So when people see that they go, 'Oh, it wasn't that bad that he said that.'"
Back when the show was on terrestrial radio, and was the focus of the kind of controversy now reserved exclusively for Miley Cyrus, people made a lot of insulting assumptions: chief among them that Quivers was there mostly to let Stern get away with racial and sexual material. "I don't have any function," she says mockingly. "I don't do anything, I don't contribute, I'm just there. And that idea is totally racist and sexist in itself! And who was saying that? Black people. Women. So in other words, you've decided that I'm too stupid to realize that I'm being exploited."
She was more than ready to defend herself, arguing with a condescending Linda Ronstadt on The Tonight Show, and yelling at Spike Lee when he berated her in a private phone call. Recently, her publicist told her that she needed to try to mend her relationship with the black community. "I said, 'Do we really?'" An explosive, doubled-over laugh. "That sounds like hard work to me and I'm not really up to that!"
Meanwhile, her comfort within the Stern show boys' club, not to mention her perpetually unmarried status, has led many people to assume she's gay. "I've had women chase me, then look me in the eye and go, oh . . . she's not," she says. For all the show's focus on lesbian sexuality, Quivers has never had the slightest urge in that direction. "I don't particularly care for women," she says. "I mean, what am I gonna do with a woman?"
She is convinced that her vegan diet, heavy on juicing, gave her the underlying health and strength she needed to fight cancer. Quivers did, by her account, recover with unusual speed from every phase of the treatment. (She has a new, recipe-filled book about her dietary regimen, The Vegucation of Robin – Stern calls her "the Paula Deen of vegetables.") But the illness was only the most recent battle she's had to fight.
She grew up lower-middle-class in Baltimore, in a house filled with enough secrets that it made perfect sense to spend her working life in a place where there are none. Her mother beat her badly enough to put her in bed for days when she was only four years old; her father molested her for several nightmarish months when she was 11. "I don't know that they made me feel unloved," she says, "except that love didn't mean anything. It just means, 'Oh, I look over at you and I feel affection. And now I'll do whatever the hell I want to do.' I have become very self-sufficient as a result. And what it actually did was keep people from being able to give to me."
She escaped to college, graduating with a nursing degree that she quickly put to use. An aggressive recruiter soon persuaded her to join the Air Force, and she spent a couple of miserable years as a military nurse. She had soured quickly on the work, and decided to change careers, enrolling in a Baltimore broadcasting school at age 27 on little more than a whim. "She grew up in a household where people were perhaps limited in their thinking," says Norris. "If you grew up in a house like that, who's going to say, 'Oh, yeah, when I grow up I'm going to be on the radio and talk to millions of people and make a lot of money'?"
She had always gotten compliments on her speaking voice, even from patients, but had never thought much of it. "I didn't think it sounded so much different than anyone else's voice until I got to the broadcasting school, and I raised my hand to ask a question of the school president, and he said, 'See me after class.' And the rest is history." She found work as a newscaster, before being lured away for a gig at a Washington, D.C., rock station with a longhaired young DJ named Howard.
Even as the show moved to New York and her professional life prospered, she was an emotional mess, fighting with Stern and her co-workers, barely holding it together in her off hours. She needed to make the real-life Robin Quivers as confident and grounded as she was on air. She went into therapy, took up Transcendental Meditation (Stern does it too) and, for a while, cut her family out of her life before cautiously resuming contact.
When her dad died in 2005, Quivers wept for 24 straight hours, without feeling anything. "Then I was back in Baltimore, and I felt this incredible sense of ease and freedom in that home that I had grown up in," she says. "All of a sudden it wasn't scary. It was done. The monster was gone. I remember saying to Howard, 'You know, the best thing my dad ever did for me was leave, because now I feel whole.'"
But she was still looking for spiritual answers. A few years back, she went to Peru and took the hallucinogen ayahuasca with a shaman on three separate nights, vomiting in a bucket each time. The first night brought harrowing visions of all the misery suffered by womankind the world over; the second night yielded a bunch of pretty colors – and the shaman yelled at her for doing it wrong. On the third night, she learned the meaning of life. "What I learned is very simple: that your life belongs to you. And it really doesn't matter what you do with it, but it should be what you want to do with it. Not what your mother or father or friends or society want. It should be 'I'-directed. And that's the only purpose for being here." She also did a form of "breath work" that induces natural hallucinations and had another revelation: "There is so much love that you don't have to worry about it, it's always there." That feeling of being surrounded by endless love kept her from fearing death. "It was, like, perfectly OK to say this might be it," she says.
Just after 5 a.m. on a chilly morning in early October, a black SUV pulls up at the deserted corner of 48th Street and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan. Quivers is in the back seat, waiting for security to take her into the studio. "I haven't seen the streets like this since May 22nd," she says. She's about to return to the studio for the first time in a year and a half, but she's not feeling any nerves: "What would I be nervous about? I'm not in any pain – this is how it used to be!" Ronnie the Limo Driver, who runs the show's security, arrives to escort us. Upstairs, Dell'Abate greets her with a hug, and shows her that he's covered her booth in rose petals. Hapless media producer JD Harmeyer spots her: "Now you can laugh at me in person," he says.
Trailed by a Howard TV cameraman, Stern arrives, looking tall and thin, almost fragile, with unexpectedly kind eyes. "Robin looks better than me, and I wasn't even sick," he says on his way into the studio, which has the neon look of an upscale strip club.
When the show was first set to move to satellite radio, Quivers wondered whether it might be time to leave. "I was like, 'Maybe this is a time to peel off and go do something else,'" she says. "I played with that idea for a while, and I said to myself, 'But Robin, if something incredible happens and you're not there, you are going to be miserable.' It's home. I don't know about life without it."
Now safely inside her booth, Quivers puts on her headphones, settles back in her Aeron chair and takes a breath. It's 6 a.m., and once more, it's time to do a show.
This story is from the November 7th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.