A conversation with Tom Brokaw
One of America’s most recognizable television news journalists was known inside the halls of the hospital where he was being treated for multiple myeloma as a number: 2/6/40. His birthdate became the stamp of identification throughout his treatment for cancer.
Tom Brokaw has lived a magical professional life: White House correspondent; host of television’s longest-running morning news program, The Today Show; and anchor of NBC’s evening news broadcast when being in the top spot meant editorial heft and authority.
In spite of that jeweled career in TV, Brokaw feels he gained more credibility and trust with the American people through his chronicle of the men and women of World War II in his best-seller The Greatest Generation.
In his latest book, A Lucky Life Interrupted, Brokaw details his two-year battle with cancer, now in remission. He writes that, of his many fortunes while battling cancer, he had a strong and supportive partner in his wife, Meredith. Also at his side as a medical expert and personal ombudsman was his physician daughter, Jennifer.
Brokaw spoke with executive editor Paul Costello about life and death, mortality and hope, and, yes, luck.
Costello: How are you doing?
Brokaw: Gratefully, I am in remission and it’s holding. Multiple myeloma is an incurable, but treatable, cancer. I am on a maintenance diet of Revlimid, which is chemotherapy. I have some spine damage. That’s a big adjustment, because my back muscles are compensating for the bone damage. But other than that, I am fine. I was pheasant hunting in South Dakota and fly fishing in Montana. I see incremental progress. That’s the encouraging thing.
Costello: You’ve said that cancer was much tougher than you anticipated. Why did you think it might be easy?
Brokaw: I think this is not uncommon. I don’t think most patients, once they get over the initial shock and the uninformed fear, have a specific idea of what it is that they may be in for. It is the most vicious opponent that modern medicine runs into. A cancer cell is at war with the body itself.
Costello: What compelled you to lay yourself so bare in the book?
Brokaw: If I have, at this stage in my career, a certain amount of credibility, I almost feel an obligation to share my story. Some of that, frankly, grows out of The Greatest Generation. I wrote about that not just for that generation but for their children as well. It seems to have elevated me in the eyes of people beyond anything I did on the air. There’s a kind of a trust. I thought, “Maybe I should cash in on that. Maybe I can help people as a journalist and as a patient. Maybe that’s a kind of legacy for all that I’m going through.”
Costello: Many people have written about cancer in very metaphorical ways. How would you describe cancer?
Brokaw: It’s a mysterious force. It’s your body turning on you. It never goes away. Even when you’re in remission, you’re still worried about it coming back. You know the wheel could turn again in another kind of cancer. You feel a certain sense of betrayal by your own body, which you’ve always taken for granted. I’ve worked hard at being healthy and being fit, and then evolution caught up with me and a couple of those 2 trillion cells that are coursing through my body decided to go rogue.
Costello: When you were first diagnosed, what was your reaction?
Brokaw: I was extremely calm. I think that had something to do with my training as a journalist. I’ve been through a lot of very difficult situations before, seeing a president resign, being in a war zone, being on the air all day on 9/11. Those kinds of things give you a certain amount of conditioning. Then, after that, I had a hard time processing what this meant. I didn’t really know what multiple myeloma was.
Costello: Why did you keep your cancer secret?
Brokaw: I knew if it got out it would be all over the Internet because the Internet has this voracious appetite for a recognizable name. I’m quite a private person about my private life and my family life. I could be on some sites that have nothing to do with who I am or what I do, but because they want to fill it up with something they’d say, “Tom Brokaw has cancer, prospects uncertain.” I didn’t want that universe to become my universe.
Costello: At some point you began seeing the world through the prism of cancer. How did it take over your life?
Brokaw: Part of the issue with cancer is that it’s invisible. I had this thing floating around in me attacking my bone marrow. I wasn’t frightened by it, but I would wake up in the middle of the night and for a nanosecond I would think, “Everything is fine.” Then I’d think, “Oh, my God, I’ve got cancer and I don’t know how we’re doing on the treatment of it, if we’re making progress or not,” because in the early stages you don’t know. I didn’t get depressed. I had this unbelievably strong support system of my daughter and my wife, who would always look at me and say, “No, you’re not going to get on an airplane and go do that, you’ve got cancer.” If my wife thought I was wilting somewhat she’d say, “One day at a time, Tom. One day at a time and we’ll be a lot better six months from now.”
Costello: Did you ever think you were going to die?
Brokaw: No, I didn’t. I really didn’t think I was going to die, and I think that’s part of the conceit of who I am. [laughs] I can be in a war zone and I think, “That shell’s going to hit somebody else. It’s not going to hit me.” I’ve been an eternal optimist my entire life.
Costello: Did your treatment give you a new perspective on America’s health-care system?
Brokaw: I think the best is the very best in the world. Miracles are performed every day. But I thought a lot about somebody in their mid-40s, early 50s, somewhere in Kansas. Gone to a community college, saved his money, opened a gas station, then a convenience store, then another gas station, a couple of more convenience stores. That’s the American Dream realized. Something like this comes along and it shatters that dream, because he or she probably has a self-financed health-care plan that’s not nearly as good as mine. Maybe not access to the same kind of expertise that I had. So it’s that unevenness that troubles me most of all.
Costello: Is there a time when you say, my old life won’t return, but that’s OK?
Brokaw: I was 73 when I was diagnosed. Seventy-three years of things going my way and I thought, “Well, I’m in cancer. I’m going to have to deal with it. We’re going to get it under control and then I’ll have my old life back.” Well, I have lot of parts of my old life back, but I don’t have it all back. Part of that is aging. I’m two years older than I was then. I’m not as inclined, for obvious reasons, to jump on a plane and go to the Third World, because I am more susceptible to infection now than I was.
Costello: Do you think about mortality more often?
Brokaw: I think it’s hard to attribute that just to cancer. It has to do with the fact that I’m now about to be 76. That 76 is pretty much the life expectancy of a white male in America, and I didn’t think about that much before. Cancer helped me think about it more carefully.
Costello: So this is a big year in politics — a presidential campaign. Will you be active with NBC News in some way?
Brokaw: Yes. I am not going to be a “boy on the bus.” I haven’t done that in a long time. But I am going to do essays and I do have a long buildup of institutional and journalistic memory that I can rely on.
Costello: A Lucky Life Interrupted. Do you still feel like you’re a lucky guy?
Brokaw: Of course. I got this potentially very threatening disease and it turned out I responded extremely well to treatment. So that’s a continuation of a lucky streak. I was in a position when I did get diagnosed that I could afford the treatment. I could get access to people who would be helpful to me. I have this fantastic family around me. That all adds up to good luck. I’m a lucky guy. So sure, the good luck continues.
In this 1:2:1 podcast, Tom Brokaw discusses his battle with cancer. Photo by Virginia Sherwood/NBCUniversal