Tom Brokaw’s cancer diagnosis sheds light on multiple myeloma
Veteran journalist Tom Brokaw, former anchor for NBC Nightly News, made headlines recently by announcing his diagnosis of multiple myeloma, a relatively uncommon and incurable cancer.
“This type of cancer can be controlled very well with different types of treatments,” Dr. Singh says. “We have made a lot of achievements in innovative therapies that can help patients to go into remission for many years. Unfortunately, multiple myeloma patients are always at risk of relapse.”
Multiple myeloma is a cancer formed by malignant plasma cells in the bone marrow. “Everyone has plasma cells that build up immunity to help guard against infections and other diseases,” Dr. Singh says. “When these plasma cells become cancerous, they can manifest into multiple plasma disorders, including multiple myeloma.”
According to Dr. Singh, approximately 22,500 people were diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2013. The median survival is three to five years, although life expectancy varies on a case-by-case basis with some patients living for many years after diagnosis, Dr. Singh notes. Age is also a major factor, with most patients being diagnosed in their 60s and 70s. Brokaw was 73 years old when diagnosed in August 2013.
“The median age of diagnosis is 60 to 65, although we do see patients who are younger,” Dr. Singh says. “Multiple myeloma is typically more aggressive in younger people.”
Multiple myeloma causes low blood count, which can lead to anemia (a condition causing extreme weakness and fatigue). It can also wear away bone, making myeloma patients more prone to fractures. It can also cause high levels of calcium and even kidney failure.
Treatment options have advanced in recent years and now include novel chemotherapy treatments to target cancer cells directly. These therapies, including thalidomide, bortezomib and lenalidomide, do not have the traditional chemotherapy side effects, Dr. Singh says. Another option is an autologous stem cell transplant in which the patient’s own healthy stem cells are collected and transplanted back into the body.
“Whether newer therapies or autologous stem cell transplant, treatment is determined by a patient’s risk factors and how aggressive the cancer is,” Dr. Singh explains. “If a patient has a high risk of recurrence, he or she is likely to be an ideal candidate for a transplant.”
Brokaw is currently undergoing treatment and appears to be responding well, according to news reports. “With innovative treatments now available, this cancer can be controlled for a longer time, providing a higher quality of life for patients,” Dr. Singh says.
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