Conference Coverage

Tom Brokaw opens up on surviving multiple myeloma



SAN DIEGO – Tom Brokaw has devoted his life to openness and transparency. But he kept mum about a big story that only he could fully tell – his diagnosis of multiple myeloma. He alerted his bosses and a few loved ones but otherwise kept his condition secret even as he struggled to walk and navigate stairs.

Tom Brokaw, television journalist and author. Courtesy American Society of Hematology

Tom Brokaw

“I didn’t want to be Tom Brokaw, cancer victim,” he said at the annual meeting of the American Society of Hematology. But he did decide to go public in a big way and he said he doesn’t regret it. “I’m kind of the multiple myeloma poster boy.”

Since opening up about myeloma, “I have learned more about life and medicine, and kindness and the extraordinary strength of this country, than I have in all my other experiences,” he said. “I can say, oddly enough, at age 78 about to be 79, that having multiple myeloma has been a kind of privilege for me.”

Mr. Brokaw is best known as the longtime anchor of “NBC Nightly News” and author of “The Greatest Generation,” about the American experience in World War II. He was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2013 and revealed his condition publicly in 2014.

In 2016, he described his treatment in a New York Times commentary: “...three years of chemotherapy, a spinal operation that cost me three inches of height, monthly infusions of bone supplements, and drugs to prevent respiratory infection.” He also described fatigue, bone damage, and a 24-pill-a-day regimen.

In his presentation at ASH, Mr. Brokaw detailed the adjustment of having to slow down after an active life as a cyclist and outdoorsman. “I’m not going to go down the street with a cane. My birth certificate says I’m 78 years old, but I still think I’m 38, anchoring the news.”

When asked how his care could have been improved, Mr. Brokaw said there could have been more focus on the physical effects of multiple myeloma on his body. “There was so much concentration on the disease itself that I don’t think I got as much as I needed regarding the radiant effects.”

At one point, he fell while running with his dog, and developed an infection in a cavity in his elbow. Still, he refused to cancel a flight to Washington, D.C., for an interview with the secretary of defense. The infection got worse, soaking his shirt with leakage, and when he returned “they slammed me into intensive care.”

He got a stern instruction that “you can’t do this anymore,” and he responded with an “ohh-kay.”

“It’s the anchorman in me. You get used to doing what you want to do. But I have to be much more careful about what I do and when I do it,” he said.

Now, Mr. Brokaw still struggles to follow advice about risks such as flying. But he remains active as a speaker, a special correspondent for NBC, and an author. “By and large,” he said, “I’m getting along OK. I’m grateful for that.”

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