We all know that life is finite, but Tom Brokaw has received a sobering estimate of just how finite his own life will be.
When he was informed two years ago that he has multiple myeloma, an incurable blood cancer that ravages the bone marrow, his doctors told him that although the average lifespan with the disease is five years, he could very well last for another eight—meaning that, optimistically, he has six years left on the planet.
“The conceit of an anchorman is we never think we’re going to die, I suppose,” the NBC News icon tells me. “When I was diagnosed, I was 73 at the time. Now I’m 75. I’m in what I call ‘The Mortality Zone.’ ”
Brokaw’s latest book, A Lucky Life Interrupted: A Memoir of Hope, is a moving, informative and deeply personal chronicle of his journey into that Mortality Zone and his sometimes-defiant acceptance of the new normal in his life.
“I’m in remission, and the numbers [from his regular lab tests) continue to hold,” he says from the Brokaw family ranch in south-central Montana, nestled on the West Boulder River, near the Absaroka Mountains.
“This disease is incurable but it’s highly treatable, and the advances they’re making are very, very heartening.”
Brokaw predicts that a cure eventually will be discovered, but probably not during his lifetime.
Meanwhile, he’s in physical therapy for his badly weakened spine, so that he can continue biking the roads, hiking the hills and swimming the streams of his beloved Montana.
Brokaw says he’s on a low-dosage regimen of chemotherapy that requires him to take 15 pills each and every day.
“That’ll be the case, is my guess, for the rest of my life,” he says, describing how Meredith Brokaw, a former Miss South Dakota and his wife of 53 years, “has been my tough cop,” making sure he faithfully downs the meds, while Goldie Nicholas—“a wonderful woman who’s worked for us for 35 years”—carefully reads the instructions and places the different pills in the appropriate compartments in his pill organizer.
“When I travel I take a more abbreviated form in the case with me,” Brokaw says. “I was fishing down in Wyoming with a bunch of pals a few weeks ago, and I told them I was the only one who got up in the morning and took eight pills that cost $500 apiece.” (Later, Brokaw clarified that only one of his pills has that heart-stopping pricetag.)
The astronomical cost of his meds is due to “the crazy pricing of our health-care system,” he explains.
Luckily, Brokaw, who has worked for NBC since 1966, enjoys Cadillac benefits that date back to the network’s ownership by RCA, before General Electric and Comcast—“so I don’t pay remotely that amount out of pocket.”
Addressing his sense of life’s fragility and its ultimate destination, Brokaw recalls the passing four years ago of his nearly 94-year-old mother, Jean.
“She told me, ‘You know, Tom, I’ve lived long enough, and it’s not as much fun as it used to be.’ And she spent the last year of her life pretty much confined to bed. She wound down slowly and died peacefully, and that’s the kind of reality I’m now thinking about.”
Has Brokaw considered how he would like to go?
“No!” he answers with a chuckle. “No, I haven’t. What I don’t want to do is be hooked up to tubes…and when the time comes, I hope it comes pretty swiftly, so it doesn’t put my family through a lot of agony. I think you’ve known me long enough to know that I live a pretty vital lifestyle.”
When I first met him in 1974, Brokaw was the rising star of NBC News—the regular Saturday anchor of the Nightly News broadcast and frequent substitute for the legendary John Chancellor—and I was a wise-ass college kid, lucky to have snagged a summer job as a lowly desk assistant at 30 Rock.
While I chain-smoked Camel filterless cigarettes (once accidentally setting fire to some wire copy in a trash can), Tom was a health-conscious fitness nut, regularly jogging through Central Park during his weekly visits from the Washington bureau, where he was NBC’s White House correspondent during the last gasp of Richard Nixon’s presidency.
Four decades later—with a spectacular, award-winning career under his belt, including 22 years as the news division’s lead anchor, a series of best-selling books about World War II’s “Greatest Generation,” and the Presidential Medal of Freedom presented last year by Barack Obama—Brokaw keeps busy as a special correspondent for NBC News, providing pieces for Dateline and the Today show, among other pursuits.
He occupies what he proudly calls “maybe the best office in the building, a corner office on the fifth floor,” and he’s viewed by colleagues as a sort of paterfamilias and corporate conscience.
He was an especially influential player during the Brian Williams fiasco, in which Brokaw’s successor for the past decade lost his anchor chair over tall tales about his adventures in journalism.
“It’s time to move on,” Brokaw says, by way of deflecting my questions about the messy episode and his reported role in answering requests for advice from higher-ups at NBC Universal and its parent company, Comcast, on how it might be fixed.
“I’m really not commenting on it, except to say there’s now been a resolution,” Brokaw says. “My whole concentration at the moment is on Lester Holt, who I think the world of, and keeping Nightly at the top of its game.”
Brokaw adds: “We have a terrific staff of people around the world, and that’s my real concentration at the moment. Brian has now gone public, and he has a new assignment [as a live breaking news anchor on MSNBC and, occasionally, as needed, on NBC]. We have to move on…Listen, these are all private conversations and I don’t want to go beyond that.”
When I press him to be more forthcoming, Brokaw laughs and says: “I’ve been on both sides of this equation for a long time. I know how persistent you are, but you’re not gonna win this one.”
Brokaw is not a man to fold under questioning, as his book makes clear, with hard-to-read accounts of how he attempted to meet his professional and social commitments, sometime imprudently, while enduring an excruciating level of pain that most mortals would find devastating.
“I don’t like to play the macho card, but I grew up in a working-class family and a working-class culture,” says Brokaw, a South Dakota native whose father helped build dams for the Army Corps of Engineers. “The motto was ‘Never complain,’ and, physiologically, I have a high threshold for pain.”
That proved to be a disadvantage, however, when Brokaw’s doctors tried to monitor his level of discomfort from the disease and he consistently underestimated it, prompting his wife and their eldest daughter Jennifer—who happens to be a physician and was his indispensible patient-advocate—to make sure everyone understood the true intensity of his suffering.
“I wasn’t trying to be falsely machismo,” Brokaw says, “that’s just the nature of who I am and how I was raised.”