Tom Brokaw's Cancer Battle: Reason for Optimism

Wednesday, 12 Feb 2014 12:05 PM

By Charlotte Libov

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News anchor Tom Brokaw’s cancer is incurable, but he still has reason to be optimistic about his future, say oncologists. NBC announced Tuesday that the network icon is battling multiple myeloma, a sometimes fatal type of blood cancer.
 
At least in the short term, Brokaw will likely be able to manage his disease so that he can continue to work, a top doctor tells Newsmax Health.
 
“Most patients with multiple myeloma can come in for treatment, but otherwise they live a normal life. There is no downtime and there is no reason they should not be able to function normally,” says Sandy D. Kotiah, M.D., a hematological oncologist who is director of the Neuroendocrine Tumor Center at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, Md.
 
Although Brokaw, 74, has been undergoing cancer treatment since August, he has remained on the job and is now covering the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. NBC, where he has worked since 1966, revealed his condition in a statement, saying his doctors were “optimistic.” Brokaw stepped aside from the NBC Evening News anchor desk in 2006, but still works regularly covering special assignments.
 
About 22,350 Americans are diagnosed with multiple myeloma each year. This form of cancer begins in the bone marrow, where blood cells are manufactured. The disease affects plasma cells, which are part of the immune system. Multiple myeloma typically strikes people in their 60s and 70s, although it can occur at any age. It causes some 10,000 U.S. deaths annually.
 
“There is no cure for multiple myeloma, but thanks to an explosion of new treatments, the survival curve is shifting,” said Dr. Kotiah. “People used to survive just a short time, but now we talk about survival in terms of years.”
 
The standard treatment for multiple myeloma used to be chemotherapy, but this has changed. Patients are now treated by newer agents, such as lenalidomide (Revlimid), one in a class of medications called immunomodulatory drugs or IMiDs.
 
“These drugs affect proteins that turn off cancer cells,” said Dr. Kotiah. “They aren’t toxic like chemotherapy. They don’t cause hair loss, they don’t cause nausea.”
 
In its early stages, multiple myeloma may not cause symptoms, and the only treatment needed is monitoring. As the disease progresses, however, it causes four serious symptoms: kidney failure, low red blood counts (anemia), high blood calcium levels, and bone fractures. Multiple myeloma also weakens the immune system, so people with it are vulnerable to infections.
 
Sometimes the disease is detected due to bone pain or fracture, but most commonly it is discovered by an abnormal blood test during a checkup. The test may show early signs of kidney failure, anemia, or high blood-calcium levels. Night sweats and abnormal fatigue can also be symptoms, Dr. Kotiah said.
 
Although long-term survival with multiple myeloma is common, it remains a serious form of cancer, Dr. Kotiah said.
 
“The average life expectancy from this disease is getting higher, but it’s still a cancer that people die from. It remains a disease that must be taken very seriously,” she added.
 

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