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What Tom Brokaw can teach us about cancer

Tom Brokaw was diagnosed with multiple myeloma three years ago.
Tom Brokaw was diagnosed with multiple myeloma three years ago.
NBC NewsWire / Getty

This weekend, veteran broadcast journalist Tom Brokaw published a New York Times piece describing an experience that’s becoming increasingly common: living with cancer.

Brokaw, who spent more than 20 years as anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News, was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, an incurable cancer that forms in the blood plasma, three years ago at age 73.

"I still lead a busy professional and personal life," he writes. "Biking, swimming, fly-fishing and bird hunting remain active interests — but in a new context."

While his cancer is now in remission, it continues to shadow his life: "Morning, noon and night, asleep and awake, malignant cells are determined to alter or end your life. Combating cancer is a full-time job that, in my case, requires 24 pills a day, including one that runs $500 a dose."

Brokaw then describes what sounds like another full-time job: making sure thoughts about dying don’t consume what’s left of his life, and that he learns to accept his illness. 

"This cancer ordeal is by far the worst, though it has redeeming qualities," he writes. Cancer has heightened his awareness about the fragility of life, brought him fellowship with other patients, and made him appreciate the "doctors and laboratory technicians who spend their lives in tedious pursuit of a cure."

Brokaw's insights are important because they reflect a new reality. While the "C" word can conjure up so much dread and shame in patients, cancer is often no longer a death sentence but a chronic disease that people need to learn to live with.

The cancer death rate has dropped by 23 percent since 1991, with some even larger gains in types of cancer that used to be extremely lethal. This means there are more and more patients, like Brokaw, who are neither dying from cancer nor defeating it entirely.

Some patients — notably Oliver Sacks, Christopher Hitchens, and Robin Roberts — have gone public with the details of their cancer experience. And we have a lot to learn from them. With insights like theirs on what it means to live with — and, most importantly accept — cancer as part of life, maybe some of the shame and dread will go away.