Tom Brokaw’s cancer diagnosis sheds light on multiple myeloma

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.

Dr. Veerpal Singh, a hematologist on staff at Advocate Sherman Hospital in Elgin, Ill., says recent advancements in treatment options offer some short term hope for those with the disease.

“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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  1. My brother was diagnosed with MM at the age of 51 and survived 14 months. He passed away almost a year ago. He went through many months of chemo and never made it to transplant. His was very aggressive. It was heart breaking to watch MM suck the life out of him.

    • Hi Kathy, thank you for your comment and sorry to hear about the loss of your brother. Hopefully, advancements in treatment options will offer hope for prolonged life and improved quality of life for those diagnosed with this type of cancer.

  2. I was diagnosed with MM two years ago and went into remission five months later after chemotherapy with one the novel drug. I am 76 years old and did not want a transplant as I would rather spend my time with family and friends rather than in long stays in the hospital. I am still in remission and hoping to cotinue for more time at which my physician has told me he has other therapies that should provide the same amount of time a transplant would probably afford. I did not have any severe reactions to the chemo and look forward to time to enjoy my retirement as I am still working.

    • Thank you for sharing your experience, Mary. That is wonderful news to hear you’re in remission from this disease. As Dr. Singh mentions in my article, there are man new therapies now available to help improve quality of life. I wish you continued health.

  3. This was an encouraging article. Great advancements in MM treatment have been made since 2007 when my father was diagnosed and quickly succumbed to the disease. Perhaps testing procedures are also advancing and early detection is making longer life expectancy possible. Hopefully these detection and treatment options will eventually lead to a cure.

  4. Scott, I’m sorry to hear about your father. Medical advancements are improving both detection and treatment of this disease to improve quality of life and prolong life. Hopefully, these advancements will one day lead to a cure.

  5. I was diagnosed 3 months ago at age 59. Treatments have returned my bloodwork close to normal, and am scheduled for transplant the first week of April. I’m aware of a number of patients who are alive several years after diagnosis, and I’m hoping to join them in having many years in remission. Those interested can find the latest news and an active network of patients and their families here:

  6. We now have a better understanding of the biological changes that occur in a myeloma cell and this is helping us to better target treatment needed among these patients.

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health enews Staff
health enews Staff

health enews staff is a group of experienced writers from our Advocate Health Care and Aurora Health Care sites, which also includes freelance or intern writers.