Cancer Diagnosis for Tom Brokaw

Veteran NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw revealed that he is being treated for a bone marrow cancer called multiple myeloma. Brokaw was diagnosed in August 2013  at the Mayo Clinic. Doctors are “optimistic” about the outcome of the treatment he is receiving.

Brokaw has continued to work throughout his treatment, making appearances on the Today show, Nightly News,  and Meet the Press. He also took part in a 2-hour documentary about the assassination of JFK.

In a statement released by NBC News, Brokaw said:

“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. I remain the luckiest guy I know.”

Tom Brokaw has worked at NBC since 1966. anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News from 1982 to 2004. He is the author of  The Greatest Generation (1998) and other books and the recipient of numerous awards and honors. He is the only person to host all three major NBC News programs: The Today Show, NBC Nightly News, and, briefly, Meet the Press. He now serves as a Special Correspondent for NBC News and works on documentaries for other outlets.

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.

Antibodies are part of the immune system which  help 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:

  • blood cellsRed 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?

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: Chemotherapy kills fast-growing myeloma cells, but the drug can also harm normal cells that divide rapidly
  • Targeted therapy: Targeted therapies 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. A stem cell transplant allows you to be treated with high doses of drugs. The high doses destroy both myeloma cells and normal blood cells in the bone marrow. After you receive high-dose treatment, you receive healthy stem cells through a vein. (It’s like getting a blood transfusion.) New blood cells develop from the transplanted stem cells. The new blood cells replace the ones that were destroyed by treatment.

For more information about multiple myeloma, click here to go to the Resounding Health Casebook on the topic.

Michele R. Berman, M.D. was Clinical Director of The Pediatric Center, a private practice on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. from 1988-2000, and was named Outstanding Washington Physician by Washingtonian Magazine in 1999. She was a medical internet pioneer having established one of the first medical practice websites in 1997. Dr. Berman also authored a monthly column for Washington Parent Magazine.

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