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GMA's Robin Roberts begins extended medical leave

Robin Roberts says goodbye for awhile on Thursday's GMA. ABC photo

Robin Roberts, dean of network morning TV's women anchors, began her extended medical leave Thursday after a group goodbye from Good Morning America's staffers and on-camera talent.

"This is just 'See ya later, see ya soon,' " an upbeat Roberts said.

The leave is beginning a day earlier than expected so that Roberts and her sister, Sally-Ann, can be with their ailing 88-year-old mother, Lucimarian, who lives in storm-tossed Mississippi.

Sally-Ann, a news anchor for WWL-TV in New Orleans, will be Robin's bone marrow donor. She is hoping to make a full recovery from myelodysplastic syndrome, a rare blood disorder.

Two of Roberts' principal GMA mates, co-anchor George Stephanopoulos and weathercaster Sam Champion, said goodbye from afar via satellite during Thursday's sendoff, Stephanopoulos is at the Republican National Convention in Tampa and Champion is in New Orleans reporting on the after-effects of Hurricane Isaac.

GMA continues to wage a close battle with NBC's Today for the top spot in the morning news ratings race. Today had been dominant for nearly two decades before GMA broke its long winning streak earlier this year.

ABC said that Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, Barbara Walters and Elizabeth Vargas will take turns filling in for Roberts during her absence, which is of undetermined length.

The network said that "a headline-making roster of stars will also pitch in to keep the show's momentum going." They include Oprah Winfrey, Chris Rock, Kelly Ripa and Rob Lowe.

ABC News president Ben Sherwood, in a memo to staffers, said that Roberts, 51, is "the captain of our GMA team and heart and soul of the program. We'll be with her every step of her new journey."

The former standout college women's basketball player first joined GMA in 1995 as a reporter and was promoted to co-anchor in 2005.

ABC has set up a website, gma.yahoo.com/robin, to provide updates on her condition.