Tom Brokaw Has Multiple Myeloma. What Is It?

Stephanie Steinberg

Veteran NBC News correspondent Tom Brokaw is used to reporting the news. But yesterday, he became it.

On Tuesday, the 74-year-old revealed he has multiple myeloma, a cancer of the bone marrow, and was diagnosed at the Mayo Clinic in August.

Since then, he's continued to report as a special correspondent for NBC News and is contributing to the network's coverage of the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Brokaw has worked at NBC since 1966 and served as the "NBC Nightly News" anchor from 1983 to 2004. Regarded as one of the most trusted voices in broadcast journalism, Brokaw has interviewed every president since Lyndon B. Johnson and covered each presidential campaign since 1968. His long list of career highlights also includes covering the Watergate scandal as a White House correspondent and being the only anchor to report from the scene when the Berlin Wall fell.

"I remain the luckiest guy I know," Brokaw said in a statement yesterday.

"With the exceptional support of my family, medical team and friends, I am very optimistic about the future and look forward to continuing my life, my work and adventures still to come."

Brokaw's doctors remain confident about his health, and so does the myeloma community. U.S. News talked with Kathy Giusti, a myeloma survivor and founder of the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation, to find out more about the disease. Her responses have been edited.

As someone who's battled myeloma, can you describe the disease?

Multiple myeloma is a blood cancer similar to how leukemia and lymphoma are also blood cancers. The challenge of living with multiple myeloma is sometimes it can create anemia, you can be tired and it can create some issues with your bones in terms of potential bone fractures down the road and even issues with your kidneys. The symptoms would typically be anemia, bone pain and susceptibility to infection.

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How common is this disease?

Today, there's about 60,000 Americans living with multiple myeloma. Each year there are 24,000 newly diagnosed patients.

Are certain people more prone to getting it than others?

I don't think it's been proven there's a genetic predisposition to myeloma. There are some people who believe radiation and pesticides can have an impact on causing myeloma.

Are there tests to determine if you have myeloma?

Yes. The reason they're able to catch this, especially if you're seeing an internist, is because they'll often see a protein in your blood, and that, along with symptoms like having bone pain or anemia, would be some signs that you'd want to get further evaluation.

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The disease is incurable, but there are treatment options. How long can people expect to live once they're diagnosed?

That has changed dramatically. When I was diagnosed in 1996, patients were living about three to four years on average. Here we are a number of years later, and we've more than doubled the life span of patients with myeloma, so it's more like between six and eight years. I think because we've had so many new drugs that are highly effective in the field, we'll continue to see extended survival in this disease.

What's the main difference between being diagnosed 10 years ago versus today?

The big difference between 10 years ago and today is the hope. Ten years ago, there were very few drugs in the pipeline. Today, we've seen six drugs approved by the FDA for myeloma. We're also seeing that the pipeline for myeloma treatments in the future is equally as robust, and it's exciting. We're really understanding much more about the basic biology of myeloma because we've made so many advancements in collecting genomic data on patients.

So what do you think about the outlook for Tom Brokaw?

I think that's why you heard his announcement sounding quite positive. Multiple myeloma is a very uncommon or small cancer, and yet we've made really big strides. And I think part of that is we really have been a well integrated community all working together for a cure. It's not just one person or one group. It's everybody pushing for it together. And in these uncommon cancers where you need critical mass -- critical mass of drugs, critical mass of patient tissue, critical mass of data -- you really have to have strong collaboration and integration to drive to success.

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And how is your health today?

I'm incredibly fortunate. I have been on two of the extraordinary drugs that were launched in the field of myeloma, Revlimid and Velcade, and I had a bone marrow transplant with my twin sister, and I have been in remission since that time in 2006.

Within each cancer, there are many subtypes of cancer. So my disease looks different from Tom Brokaw's, which looks different from the next person's. So we have to understand if myeloma is not just one disease, but 10, what are the different combinations of drugs that down the road will be curative for each subtype. And that's how we're really going to start to cure cancer.