Tom Brokaw has reported on virtually every major national and international story taking place during most of our adult lifetimes and those of greatest generation. He is as good as it gets when it comes to reporting a story. However, the NBC news legend recently has found himself in the unusual position of being the subject of news stories. One news story is a good story – Mr. Brokaw has been honored with a coveted Jefferson Award for Public Service. The other story involves a challenge that more than one out of two men and one out of three women in America will face during their lifetimes. Mr. Brokaw has been diagnosed. He has a form of blood cancer known as myeloma.
Congratulations on receiving a Jefferson Award!
Earlier this week in New York, the Jefferson Awards for Public Service – America’s most prestigious honor for public service – celebrated Tom Brokaw with the 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award for a lifetime of landmark work in American journalism. In his most recent book, The Time of Our Lives, Mr. Brokaw invites us to foster a rebirth of family, community, and civic engagement, something to which he has dedicated his life.
Also receiving Jefferson Awards along with Mr. Brokaw were former New York Yankee relief pitcher Mariano Rivera (Most Outstanding Service by a Professional Athlete for his work helping underprivileged children in the United States and in his homeland of Panama), Melrose Place TV star Andrew Shue (Most Outstanding Service by an Entrepreneur), and Lillian Pravda and Maria Keller (Most Outstanding Service by Individuals 25 Years or Under).
Regular readers know that the Jefferson Awards for Public Service were founded in 1972 by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Senator Robert Taft Jr., and Sam Beard to create a Nobel Prize for public service.
A few days earlier, it was announced that Mr. Brokaw was diagnosed with myeloma this past summer and has been undergoing treatment. Last night on CBS Late Night, Mr. Brokaw told David Letterman that he was appreciative of the medical care he has received and of the support from family and friends. Apart from acknowledging that he has been hard at work during his treatment, Mr. Brokaw made it clear that he wanted to keep his medical situation private.
Everyone handles the diagnoses of cancer differently and each cancer patient’s wishes with regard to how much, if any, information they choose to share should be respected. The mere disclosure of the news that a well-respected American fixture such as Mr. Brokaw has myeloma focuses much needed attention on this under-publicized disease. We respect Mr. Brokaw’s privacy and end the discussion on Mr. Brokaw with heart-felt congratulations on his receiving a Jefferson Award.
Your Cancer Examiner would be remiss, however, by failing to take this opportunity to provide some general information on myeloma.
What is myeloma?
Myeloma is a form of blood cancer. Myeloma begins in the bone marrow and impacts certain white blood cells called plasma cells. Plasma cells produce antibodies, which are proteins that assist the body in ridding itself of harmful substances. Each plasma cell responds to one specific substance by producing one kind of antibody. The body has many types of plasma cells and, therefore, can respond to many types of substances. When cancer occurs, the body overproduces abnormal plasma cells, known as myeloma cells. Myeloma cells collect in the bone marrow and the outer layer of the bone.
Myeloma survivors in the United States are estimated to total more than 69,000, with over 21,700 new cases and 10,700 deaths a year. There are several forms of myeloma identified by the areas of the body impacted and the rate of progression. Most patients, about 90%, have multiple myeloma, meaning the disease is in multiple areas of the body by the time of diagnosis. The disease is most common in older individuals—the medium age at diagnosis is 70 years—but younger people can have myeloma too. Many times, it is a broken bone that leads a patient to seek treatment and that results in the diagnosis. Indeed, the most common sign of myeloma is bone fractures and bone pain without an apparent reason. Pain is most common in the back or ribs, but it can occur
in other bones. The pain is usually made worse by movement.
Other symptoms may include: weakness; fatigue; pale skin; recurring infections; neuropathy (numbness, tingling, burning or pain) in the hands or feet; increased thirst or urination; constipation; and kidney failure. Hyperviscosity syndrome sometimes is associated with myeloma. This may cause blurry vision, headaches, chest pain, abnormal bleeding, or shortness of breath.
There are various treatments for myeloma. Drugs include bortezomib (Velcade), thalidomide (Thalomid), dexamethasone (Decadron), lenalidomide (revlimid), Melphalan (Alkeran) which sometimes are used as single agents, but more often in various combinations. In addition, autologous stem cell transplants (sometimes tandem transplants) often are a component of treatment. There is no standard maintenance therapy at present, but research is ongoing and promising. Radiation therapy is used sometimes as a first-line treatment for patients whose myeloma is localized, in preparation for a stem cell transplant, or in carefully selected patients whose bone pain does not respond to chemotherapy. Carfilzomib (kyprolis) has been approved to treat refractory patients with multiple myeloma who have received at least two prior therapies. Other therapies are available and in clinical trial.
There remains much work to be done to develop more effective, less toxic treatments for myeloma. Once again, we all can make a difference through awareness, education, advocacy, and raising money for medical research!