Learning to Live with Cancer

Tom Brokaw in 2014. Matt Rourke/Associated Press
Tom Brokaw in 2014. Matt Rourke/Associated Press

For most of my adult life I have answered the question “Occupation?” with one word: journalist. I still do, but now I am tempted to add a phrase.

Cancer patient.

Three years ago, at age 73, I learned that I had an incurable cancer called multiple myeloma. At the time the statistical life span for patients with the disease was five years.

That number has not changed, but I have. After three years of chemotherapy, a spinal operation that cost me three inches of height, monthly infusions of bone supplements and drugs to prevent respiratory infection, I am now almost as close to 80 as I was to 70 at the time of the diagnosis. I have lived 60 percent of those five years.

The cancer is in remission, and I take the word of my medical team that I am doing well and should beat the standard life expectancy. I still lead a busy professional and personal life. Biking, swimming, fly-fishing and bird hunting remain active interests — but in a new context.

Even in remission, cancer alters a patient’s perception of what’s normal. 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. For me, bone damage brought persistent back pain and unwelcome muscle deterioration.

Constant fatigue is a common signature of cancer patients, which separates them from healthy friends and family members. It is also what brings cancer patients together.

A younger family friend and I had been close since his preteen years. When he found out he had gastric cancer, we became even closer as we shared dark humor about our fatigue and frustration with the constraints on what had been carefree lives.

His condition was much more serious than mine, but we avoided all that and worked instead via email on a project of common interest. His last message to me was, “Hey, I’m up to 17 percent oxygen without the tank.”

I have to compose myself before I write that he didn’t make it.

Another friend and I got the news that we had multiple myeloma at about the same time. We were on a similar treatment track until she suffered a stroke and didn’t recover.

Her death was a blunt reminder of my new reality. Pre-cancer I would have been saddened by her death. With cancer, my grief was accompanied by another sentiment: “Good God, do I now have to worry about a stroke?”

Since multiple myeloma is more common among men of my age, I have a new generational cohort. A college athletic director in the Southeastern Conference, a pro football defensive ends coach, an admiral I met on an aircraft carrier in the war zone. We’ve become email pals, comparing notes on drugs, side effects, fatigue, treatments.

Other patients write to volunteer their experience and inquire about my drug protocol. A man my age whom I recently met learned he had it in 2002 before the new treatments were available and he’s doing well 14 years later. Hallelujah.

Age alone puts me in my twilight years; and cancer only heightens that objective reality. Yet I am not consumed by the prospect of death. When it intermittently enters my consciousness it has an abstract quality. I can’t quite get a grip on how this life might end.

No surprise. I’ve had a lot more experience living than dying. It’s been a life of high highs and very few lows. There were some wrong turns along the way but no lasting damage. This cancer ordeal is by far the worst, though it has redeeming qualities.

In the cancer ecosystem I became a traffic cop for others with multiple myeloma. “You may want to see Dr. X,” or “Let me make a call — maybe they’ll have room for you after all.”

I have also gained an appreciation for the doctors and laboratory technicians who spend their lives in tedious pursuit of a cure. Cancer-free people are blessed, but they are not always aware of the dedication, compassion and genius of those I’ve come to know who are daily engaged in the war against this elusive, pernicious enemy. They’re the students you tried to sit next to in high school biology classes, and they get too little attention or credit.

Whenever I engage in this kind of reflection I fault myself for not shifting into a lower gear. What happened to the sailing lessons, the calligraphy course, that short story I had hoped to publish?

After a half century as a prominent part of NBC News political coverage I do not want to give up a place on the team during this momentous, if unsettling, year. Other decisions are not so clear cut.

Cancer fund-raising events? Yes, if the distance and demands are not onerous. But is it possible that NBC News coverage of the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, two very long plane rides away, would not be at all affected by my absence? I think it is.

Maybe it would be better if I just gathered our five grandchildren and we watched the occasion on television as I answered their questions. Then we would all go for Chinese food and plan our next get together.

Cancer, you’re not invited.

Tom Brokaw, a special correspondent for NBC News, is the author, most recently, of A Lucky Life Interrupted: A Memoir of Hope.

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