Health & Fitness

Tom Brokaw: Cancer interrupts his lucky life

In ‘A Lucky Life Interrupted: A Memoir of Hope,’ TV journalist Tom Brokaw writes about his battle with multiple myeloma, an incurable, but treatable blood cancer.
In ‘A Lucky Life Interrupted: A Memoir of Hope,’ TV journalist Tom Brokaw writes about his battle with multiple myeloma, an incurable, but treatable blood cancer.

Tom Brokaw, a figure of unflappable cool, is momentarily distracted.

This season’s Rockefeller Center Christmas tree had just arrived outside his office in New York City a week after Halloween. The 78-foot-tall Norway spruce will be lit on Dec. 2, a symbol of the holidays in Manhattan and nationwide.

The promise of cheer can’t pass unrecognized by the renowned television journalist who, just two years earlier, heard the bleakest words of his then 73 years: “You have a malignancy.”

Brokaw was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the white blood cells that accumulate in the bone marrow and produce abnormal proteins. The incurable, but treatable, cancer can cause a host of problems, including bone and kidney damage. About 50,000 people are diagnosed in the U.S. annually, said Dr. James Hoffman, multiple myeloma specialist at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, part of UHealth — the University of Miami Health System.

Two years later, the former anchor of NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw who, after the second tower collapsed on Sept. 11, 2001, looked steadily into the television camera and declared to millions, “We’re at war,” has won his own personal battle.

“I’m doing fine,” Brokaw said in a telephone interview to promote his new book, A Lucky Life Interrupted (Random House; $27.99) and Wednesday night’s Evening With ... appearance at Miami Book Fair. “The big important thing is the cancer itself is in remission.”

Brokaw is continuing on daily low-protocol chemotherapy but has spinal cord damage as a result of the cancer. “My back is not where I’d like it to be,” he said. “My spinal cord couldn’t handle everything that was asked of it. I get tired. More fatigued.”

Granted, in a recent 10-day period Brokaw, 75, had hopscotched the country — New York, Denver, Houston, Dallas — to spread the word that multiple myeloma needn’t be a death sentence. “I’m not slowing my pace,” he said, his voice slightly raspier than you recall from decades of living room viewing. He joined NBC News in 1966. But his tone remains steady, firm. A familiar voice that is comforting in crisis.

The journalist hopes to tap that goodwill as he tours A Lucky Life. “What I really want to do is be an advocate for patients and try to help them,” Brokaw said. “I hope the book encourages them to ask more questions. It’s an emotionally frightening experience when you get this diagnosis and, secondly, you always feel unprepared to deal with doctors and don’t know what questions to ask. What I want them to know is there are no dumb questions. If you’ve got a question, ask it.”

Brokaw’s eldest daughter Jennifer, an emergency room physician, was a source of strength. So was his wife Meredith, a board member with Gannett Company and “the strong one in the family,” with whom he has three grown daughters. Finding a trusted ally can help in the healing process.

“Get someone like my daughter was for me, and make that friend your advocate so you can turn to him or her and ask, ‘What are they talking about here?’ ‘Are they telling me the truth?’ The more and more people I’ve shared that with are doing it and thanking me for it,” Brokaw said.

Hoffman, who was a fellow at Memorial Sloan Kettering alongside one of Brokaw’s doctors, Dr. Heather Landau, thinks the newsman, with his high profile, has performed a big service to the medical community by going public. (Hoffman did not treat Brokaw.)

“This book is great publicity. A lot of my patients talk about him as an inspiring source,” Hoffman said. “For a lot of patients who are diagnosed with a serious illness that they hadn’t heard of before it can be isolating. … When it’s a figure of some prominence that talks about it and gives people comfort, like Tom Brokaw, when that person is upbeat and articulate and doing well and getting better, a lot of people get hope from that. [They] feel part of something larger and a little less lonely. That can be helpful.”

About 50,000 people are diagnosed [with multiple myeloma] in the U.S. annually, said Dr. James Hoffman, multiple myeloma specialist at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center.

For Brokaw, multiple myeloma announced itself with persistent lower back pain. The South Dakota-born anchor, who opened his 74th year by biking through Chile and Argentina and who had engaged in wildlife excursions in Africa while reporting on Nelson Mandela’s final days, chalked it up to his myriad physical activities.

Ominously, daughter Jennifer prophesied the title of her father’s book in an off-the-cuff comment during a road trip shortly before he was diagnosed in August 2013.

‘Dad,’ she would say, ‘we’ve never had anything go really wrong in our family. I wonder if we could handle it.’

“We were about to find out.”

According to the American Cancer Society’s report, Cancer Facts & Figures 2015, an estimated 26,850 adults (14,090 men and 12,760 women) in the United States will be diagnosed with multiple myeloma. It is estimated that 11,240 deaths (6,240 men and 5,000 women) from this disease will occur through 2015, which places multiple myeloma’s mortality rate considerably lower than lung (158,040), the digestive system (149,300) and breast (40,730) cancers.

Hoffman, who cites the rapid pace of discovery in myeloma treatment and promising new drugs — Brokaw was treated with Velcade, Revlimid and dexamethasone — cautions patients to not put too much stock in stats.

“The challenge is people will Google statistics when diagnosed with something — (‘The average life expectancy is seven years and I’m 55, this is not acceptable’) — but these are stats related to people who have died. No one knows the stats for people diagnosed in 2014. This is still a life-threatening illness for many people but people diagnosed now can be hopeful in a realistic way that they’ll outlive their illness or even that it will be cured in their lifetimes.”

I will die someday but it is not likely to be the result of multiple myeloma. … Life, what’s left. Bring it on.

Tom Brokaw, NBC News reporter, from his new book ‘A Lucky Life Interrupted.’

Brokaw, a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient in 2014, acknowledges that his profile, and position as a board of trustees member of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, puts him in a unique position. “I can’t discount that. I was aware of that going in. … I was connected. When I walked through the door they created this mythical character. What if I was a 48-year-old guy from Wichita and had something like this and don’t know where to go and my healthcare plan was not as strong as mine was? These are a lot of issues I was constantly aware of. I could pick up the phone.”

A Lucky Life Interrupted, which originated as a journal Brokaw kept after learning he had the disease, details some of the healthcare issues facing the average American family. Brokaw welcomed becoming “the designated cancer poster boy” as he speaks at seminars to spread awareness.

The book “began as a journey of discovery for me because I was learning something every day. …A third of the way through the journal I thought it might be helpful to others.”

Brokaw’s gratified that A Lucky Life has been adopted by many medical institutions, Mayo among them, for distribution to patients to improve communication between doctor and patient. He also cites a new program at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center that pairs patients who went through similar cancer experiences in counseling sessions with newly diagnosed multiple myeloma individuals. The Sylvester Center continues research into multiple myeloma. “It’s great multiple myeloma gets attention; helps with our research funding,” Hoffman said.

Said Brokaw: “The best line came from Sam Donaldson [former ABC News anchor] ‘I know what you’re thinking. Why me? At your age, Why not me?’ And that is what you learn as you get older. Evolution catches up with you. This body served me well for 73 years. Then a couple rogue cells turned on me and I learned about vulnerability. Something can come along and interrupt my plans.”

Howard Cohen: 305-376-3619, @HowardCohen

If you go

What: An Evening with Tom Brokaw

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Miami Dade College, Chapman Conference Center, Building 3, Second floor, Room 3210 at 300 NE Second Ave.

Tickets: $15 online at miamibookfair.com

Information: 305-237-3258

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