​Tom Brokaw's Multiple Myeloma Diagnosis

The former NBC anchorman recounts how his life was turned upside down when he was diagnosed with the blood cancer.

In his book "A Lucky Life Interrupted," former NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw recounts how his life was turned upside down in 2013, when he was diagnosed with a form of blood cancer called multiple myeloma.

In a May 2015 Dateline special, Brokaw told the story of his diagnosis and treatment. At 73, he was still leading an active lifestyle; bicycling through Chile and Argentina, flying to South Africa to cover the last days of Nelson Mandela, and accompanying his wife Meredith to Malawi, where she worked with a women's cooperative.

During this time Brokaw developed persistent lower back pain. He attributed it to his activities and long plane rides. An orthopedist friend took an X-ray of his spine, didn't see any major abnormalities, and recommended additional stretching exercises. They didn’t help much, but being of "sturdy Midwestern stock," Brokaw explained he just figured it was a sign of getting older.

His personal physician, however, became concerned about the continued pain and ordered blood tests, leading to Brokaw's diagnosis. He soon began chemotherapy to treat the cancer.

In winter 2015, Brokaw finally heard the words he had been waiting for: His cancer was under control. He remains on chemotherapy to keep the multiple myeloma at bay.

What is Multiple Myeloma?

Multiple myeloma is a cancer that develops from plasma cells, a type of white blood cell in the bone marrow that make antibodies, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI).

Antibodies are part of the immune system, which helps protect the body from germs and other harmful substances. Each type of plasma cell makes a different antibody.

When a plasma cell becomes cancerous, it divides into more cells in an uncontrolled manner.  Myeloma cells make antibodies called M proteins and other proteins. These proteins can collect in the blood, urine, and in organs, and can cause damage to those organs.

In multiple myeloma, abnormal plasma cells (myeloma cells) build up in the bone marrow, forming tumors in many bones of the body. These tumors may prevent the bone marrow from making enough healthy blood cells. Normally, the bone marrow produces stem cells (immature cells) that develop into three types of mature blood cells:

  • Red blood cells that carry oxygen and other materials to all tissues of the body
  • White blood cells that fight infection and disease
  • Platelets that help prevent bleeding by causing blood clots to form

As the number of myeloma cells increases, fewer red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets are made. The myeloma cells also damage and weaken the hard parts of the bones.

What Symptoms Does Multiple Myeloma Cause?

Sometimes multiple myeloma does not cause any symptoms. The following symptoms may be caused by multiple myeloma:

  • Bone pain, often in the back or ribs
  • Bones that break easily
  • Fever for no known reason or frequent infections
  • Easy bruising or bleeding
  • Trouble breathing
  • Weakness of the arms or legs
  • Feeling very tired

Sometimes tumors can damage the bone and cause hypercalcemia (a condition in which there is too much calcium in the blood). This can affect many organs in the body, including the kidneys, nerves, heart, muscles, and digestive tract, and cause serious health problems.

How is Multiple Myeloma Treated?

According to the NCI, patients with early myeloma can do well for years without treatment and starting treatment early does not seem to help them live longer. These patients are often watched closely without starting chemo. Sometimes they will be given a medication called bisphosphonate to help protect their bones.

For patients with symptoms, treatment options include induction therapy and/or stem cell transplant. It should be noted that it is very difficult to cure multiple myeloma, however, many patients live with it as a chronic disease.

Induction Therapy

Many different types of drugs are used to treat myeloma. People often receive a combination of drugs, and many different combinations are used to treat myeloma.
Each type of drug kills cancer cells in a different way:

  • Chemotherapy: This kills fast-growing myeloma cells, but the drugs can also harm normal cells that divide rapidly
  • Targeted therapy: These use drugs that block the growth of myeloma cells. The targeted therapy blocks the action of an abnormal protein that stimulates the growth of myeloma cells
  • Steroids: Some steroids have antitumor effects. It is thought that steroids can trigger the death of myeloma cells. A steroid may be used alone or with other drugs to treat myeloma

Stem Cell Transplant

Many people with multiple myeloma may get a stem cell transplant. The high doses of chemotherapy and radiation that many patients receive destroy both myeloma cells and normal blood cells in the bone marrow. Some patients receive stem cell transplants in order to restore the normal, blood-forming stem cells.

*

Celebrity Diagnosis: Teachable Moments in Cancer is produced by Celebrity Diagnosis LLC to raise awareness and knowledge of health and medical issues. The information on the subjects of these articles is derived from public news sources. Celebrity Diagnosis LLC and its employees are not involved in the care of any of the subjects nor do they have access to, or knowledge of, the subjects' medical records or personal health information. Celebrity Diagnosis LLC is solely responsible for the contents of these articles.

The American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) is a 501c3 registered nonprofit organization with offices at 615 Chestnut Street, 17th Floor, Philadelphia, PA 19106 | 215.440.9300