On the telephone, you can’t forget that you’re speaking with an iconic man. That near-perfect television news voice of authority so familiar from the 24 years he sat as anchor of NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw is still there. Yet now, at 76, Brokaw is more vulnerable. Having waged a successful battle against cancer he takes life at a much different pace than during his swashbuckling days as mega broadcaster. He chronicled his battle with multiple myeloma in the recent memoir A Lucky Life Interrupted, and he spoke to me for a 1:2:1 podcast and Q&A in the new issue of Stanford Medicine.
The former Today Show host, White House correspondent, uber anchor and now essayist and commentator for NBC News writes about his cancer candidly and with humility. It’s somewhat surprising to hear him say that in spite of his jeweled career as a broadcast journalist he believes he gained his true credibility with the public as the author of his World War II tome, The Greatest Generation. So why write this new book about his cancer in such a deeply personal way? “I thought… maybe I can help people as a journalist and patient,” he told me. “Maybe that’s a kind of legacy for all that I am going through.”
I wondered if he ever thought during his two-year battle with cancer that he was going to die. “No,” he laughed, “that’s part of the conceit of who I am. I can be in a war zone and think: ‘That shell is going to hit someone else. It’s not going to hit me.’ I’ve been an eternal optimist my entire life.”
Brokaw concedes he’s lucky on many counts. During his cancer treatments he had a strong supportive family, with his wife, Meredith by his side. A physician-daughter, Jennifer, acted as sort of an ombudsman, troubleshooting his care when necessary. He also knows that the golden health-care plan he has is not one that most Americans have access to or can afford; he said “the unevenness” in the U.S. health-care system is what troubles him the most.
So do you still feel like a lucky guy? I asked. “Of course. I got this potentially very threatening disease, and it turned out I responded extremely well to the treatments. So that’s a continuation of a lucky streak.”
Previously: Precision health: a special report from Stanford Medicine magazine and “How cancer becomes us”: A conversation with author and anthropologist Lochlann Jain
Related: Kimberly Allison on seeing cancer from both sides
Illustration by Joe Morse