TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Tom Brokaw, got some really bad news two years ago. He was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer that is treatable but incurable. How it's changed his life is the subject of his new memoir, "A Lucky Life Interrupted." We're going to talk about the cancer and about his career in journalism. Brokaw stepped down as the anchor and managing editor of the "NBC Nightly News" in 2005, after 21 years. He joined NBC News in 1966. He was the White House correspondent during Watergate. From 1976 to '81, he anchored "The Today Show." He says the most challenging breaking news story of his career was the attacks of 9/11. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the redefinition of communist China were the most historically important and transformative stories he covered.
Tom Brokaw, welcome to FRESH AIR. I just want to start by saying, my understanding is you've said all you care to say for now about Brian Williams. True?
TOM BROKAW: True.
GROSS: OK, so let's just move on (laughter). So, toward the end of your book, you report that your blood count had returned to normal, which is great news. Where are you now, and what's the latest prognosis?
BROKAW: The latest prognosis is that I'm in remission, and we hope to keep it there. A friend of mine asked an interesting question. He said, so, where do those little guys go when they go in remission? And I said, I really don't know the answer. I just know that they're not in my bloodstream causing a lot of difficult for me - difficulty for me. The prognosis is that I'm going to be on what is called a chemo maintenance program for the rest of my life, although I really think that they may come up with a cure for this incurable cancer before I check out. They're making such progress that it's very, very encouraging. So I take a low-dosage chemo pill every day. I liken it to what a diabetic does, and I'm prepared to do that. I've talked to a number of people now who continue to lead very active lives even though they're on drug maintenance. So - and that's where I am at the moment and expect to be for a number of more years; however many more I have.
GROSS: You're so lucky in the respect that doctors initially diagnosed your problem as back pain. You were actually getting fractures as a result of the multiple myeloma, but the doctors didn't see that on the x-rays. They didn't diagnose it that way. So, when you got the diagnosis, were you shocked? Were you not expecting anything as profound as that?
BROKAW: I was certainly not expecting a diagnosis of a malignancy cancer. I thought, having just been in Africa, that I may have had a parasite of some kind or there might have been something going on in my lower spine that the conventional x-rays did not pick up. I didn't expect the doctor to turn to me as he did and say, you have a malignancy. It's called multiple myeloma. You know people who have died from it - Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman to run for vice president, Frank Reynolds, the ABC anchorman. That was all in one pass. And I think we all wonder how we would react to that kind of news. I was kind of in two parts. I was a journalist on the outside looking in on Tom Brokaw, the person, and I was reasonably astonished that I was not shocked. I was not in a panic. I was very cool and calm. I wanted to know more. I immediately thought not about me, but about my family.
GROSS: So you say that you didn't deal with it with shock or panic. Did shock and panic set in later?
BROKAW: No, it really didn't, in part because I didn't know what I was in for. I knew that I had cancer. I walked out of that meeting and walked back to the hotel room with my head spinning. But, again, I was trying to be rational about it. What do I need to know? What is this going to mean over the long haul? I was deeply involved, at the time, in producing with a team a long documentary on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John Kennedy, and I had to go back to the room and do some writing on it that night. So I went back to the room and began writing, and I kept two instruments at my side. One, I would Google from time to time and look at multiple myeloma - what more I needed to know. Then I would go back to the documentary again. And that became a pattern for my life. I divided my time between dealing with my cancer and then dealing with the things that I've always loved, which is journalism and the big stories that I've been involved in.
GROSS: Why does multiple myeloma attack the bones?
BROKAW: Well, it's a mystery. No one knows why it starts or how it starts. It's a small population cancer. Of the top cancers, this is 20th. It strikes mostly at men who get into their 50s and 60s. African-American men are especially susceptible to it. But now it's moving down in the age group. I've met two or three young people who were in their 30s and 40s who have gotten it. More women seem to be getting it now. I don't think that they have that quantified at this point. And the doctor who I really came to treasure, not just as a friend, but also as a clinician, was Ken Anderson at Dana-Farber. And he said, Tom, this is a nasty disease. I've been dealing with it for 40 years. He was the first one to use that word, nasty. And it is because it goes after your blood and the bone marrow, so you get hit from two sides.
GROSS: When you got the diagnosis, you were away from home. You weren't going to be returning home for another couple of days. So you had time to figure out how you wanted to break the news to your wife, Meredith. You knew you didn't want to do it by phone. So having two days to prepare for telling her, did you rehearse, like, different ways that you could go about telling her?
BROKAW: I did. I rehearsed what I was going to say to her and the setting because it was obviously going to be a profound change in our lives. I went through some more tests. And very late that day, I flew to Montana, arrived at midnight in a small town called Livingston. And my wife picked me up there with my dog. And it's a torturous road to the ranch, so I didn't want to tell her on that road. And we got to the house, and we went upstairs. And I went down to fix myself a big drink, sat on the edge of the bed and said, there's something I haven't told you. I was diagnosed with cancer. It's called multiple myeloma. And her eyes widened. She stared at me, as she later said, in disbelief. I said, I don't know how this is going to turn out, but they assure me that they think that they can beat it. And it's going to change our lives. I tried to be as rational as possible about it. She asked me a couple of questions that I couldn't answer because I didn't know the answers yet. And, as I say in the book, we have, at that point, had been married 51 years, and we had a shared relationship based in part on our Midwestern sensibilities and the great emotional attachment we have to each other. And we fell asleep in each other's arms to face this new world.
GROSS: Because multiple myeloma invades the bone marrow, I assume this is why you've had to deal with fractures caused by the disease and that's brought with it a lot of pain. You'd experienced a lot of pain in the past. You'd been in a serious helicopter crash. You'd had a broken ankle, foot, finger. Compare that kind of pain with the pain of the effects of multiple myeloma.
BROKAW: Well, the multiple myeloma pain was much more excruciating, and it was paralyzing in a way. There were times when I simply couldn't get out of bed. Meredith was quite wonderful about helping me relieve myself in the middle of the night with hospital vessels that they would send over. My son-in-law came over and spent the night - New York son-in-law - to help Meredith getting me out of bed. So I had never been through anything like that. The other episodes that I've gone through was a broken ankle, broken feet, broken finger. They also - all of them had a sell-by date. I knew when they were going to be fixed. With cancer, you know, there's no date on the calendar that says it'll end here at 2 o'clock in the afternoon. And the uncertainty of that becomes something that you have to cope with as well. But the pain is the big issue. And if I can, I'll do a quick public service announcement for people my age, especially men. If you get a back pain from 60 on because you're a golfer or a tennis player or an active hiker, get a blood test because what often happens - and I've talked to two or three physicians who went through this - got a back pain because they were golfers and tennis players. They thought it was just another ordinary back pain. They went to an orthopedist - in one case to a chiropractor - to relieve what they thought was a conventional malady in their back. Well, then they ended up getting a blood test, and all of them had multiple myeloma. And so it's important that we're aware that there are other ways of diagnosing back pain than just looking at an x-ray from the middle of your back on up.
GROSS: You write in your memoir that you think about mortality in ways that you didn't before the diagnosis. What's the difference in how you think about it now?
BROKAW: Well, I turned 73 before the diagnosis. And I do remember thinking, I'm 73, so what? I'm going to be OK. My mother lived to be 92. I'm going to just keep on charging. I went immediately after that birthday down to South America to bike with friends across Chile and Argentina. I was a very - active life - never occurred to me that I was in the mortality zone, even though I knew intellectually and statistically that that was the case. White males now live to be about 76 years old, statistically. And I thought I'll just blow through all of that. When this set in, I don't think it changed me profoundly. I just became more conscious of the fact that the days are more numbered now. As I say in the book, there are no long-term leases when you turn 73, 74 and now 75. And I'm looking more carefully at people at the end stage, how they died, what they were like at the end, how they handled it. Our daughter Jennifer is also - one of her great, great interests is end of life, how families deal with it. And she really is very insistent that all families need to sit down and have a tough conversation - who's going to be the caregiver? What are the circumstances about DNR, do not resuscitate? What do you say to the medical team if a member of the family goes in and seems not able to recover easily? And she says this will reduce the emotional turmoil a great deal if you talk about that in advance, and we have. So I think that she knows and my wife knows and the other members of the family know kind of where I am with that. But again, I don't expect to hit that cliff any time in the next couple of years. You know, if I can get through this, I do hope with the conditioning I have in the rest of the body and the ability to have - that I have to get the help that I need, that I'll go on into my 80s.
GROSS: The kinds of decisions that you've just spoken of are very personal decisions. But would you be willing to share any of your directives with us? Or if that's too personal, which it probably is, that's fine.
BROKAW: Yeah, well, I'll do that in a way that it might be helpful to everyone. When Jennifer first got interested in this, we were invited to do a TED Talk in Stanford. And it was a shorter TED Talk. We only had, like, 12 minutes. And so she began by saying, you have an advanced care directive, Dad? And I said, yeah. She said, where is it? I said, I don't know. She said, well, let's begin with that. You got to find it. And who did it? I said, a lawyer did it. That's a bad idea, Dad. You know, we needed the family to be involved in this. So she walked me through all of these things. And she said, what is quality of life mean to you? I said, well, you know, I don't like the idea of being confined to a wheelchair. But what if you're confined to a wheelchair and you can't walk, but you can do everything else and you have grandchildren that you can interact with? Wouldn't that be acceptable? I said, you know, I hadn't thought about that, but of course it would be. I could continue to write. What I don't want to be is hooked up to some kind of a system that's just artificially keeping me alive.
GROSS: So just one more question related to this - are you afraid of death? Are you afraid of suffering in the period before death?
BROKAW: I'm not sure that I would use the phrase, afraid. I think that we had enough discussion in our family that we would try desperately to avoid any kind of undue suffering. My mother lived to be 92, and she spent - she did very well until the last year of her life and then she was bedbound, in effect. And at one point, she'd had a knee replacement, and it came apart. And the doctor immediately said, well, we have to get her back to the hospital and repair that. And my daughter stepped between my mother and the doctor and said, no way. She's staying right where she is. You just splint that, and she's going to stay in this bed. If you take her to the hospital, she'll be gone in 20 minutes because she'd made it very clear she didn't want to go back. And in fact with mother then housebound and confined to her bed, everybody could go by and say, in a sweet and loving way, goodbye to her over the course of the next nine months. And that seemed to me to be a kind of a model for what families need to know. But you need somebody who, like Jennifer, could intervene or have a very strong set of instructions.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Tom Brokaw. He's written a new memoir called "A Lucky Life Interrupted" which is about getting the diagnosis of multiple myeloma, which is a blood cancer that invades the bone marrow.
Let's talk about the news business. When you started as a news reporter in Omaha, you didn't even own a TV. You went to - what? - a pizza place or a bar so that there'd...
BROKAW: (Laughter). Right.
GROSS: ...Be a TV where you could actually watch yourself...
GROSS: ...Do your reports. Was it for financial reasons that you didn't own a TV, or did you just not care about television?
BROKAW: No, I cared about it, but we - Meredith and I got married in the summer of 1962 in August of that year. Her very generous parents - her father was a physician - bought us the most - the least expensive new car on Main Street in Yankton, S.D., was a Chevy II, bare bones, no air-conditioning, no radio, but it got - it was great transportation.
My dad, who was a working-class guy, gave me, like, $400 or $500 in cash as a wedding present. We needed all of that to rent our first apartment. And it was a furnished apartment, and it was quite dreadful, quite honestly. But we didn't have enough money left over to buy a television set. So I would do these reports for the station where I was working, and then we would shoot down at 10 o'clock at night to this wonderful little Italian pizza place and watch. And the bartender, who was kind of Marty-like - you remember the film "Marty"?
BROKAW: And he would say it was...
GROSS: Ernest Borgnine (laughter).
BROKAW: Yeah, Ernest Borgnine. And he would look at us, and he would say, you're on television. Why are you here? Well, we said, we don't have a television set, so we have to watch it in here. And Ross Minotti (ph) was his name, and he said, I won one last week in a church drawing. I don't need it. I'll bring it, and you come back tomorrow night (laughter), this little turquoise 13-inch black-and-white television set.
And then that led to us becoming very close friends with his extended family of Italian Americans in Omaha. So it was one more example of Brokaw's lucky life. I got a television set and a whole family of great, new friends out of all of that. But it was for...
GROSS: And probably some good food (laughter).
BROKAW: (Laughter). Right, yeah.
GROSS: So why news? Why did you want to go into news?
BROKAW: I was always very curious about what was going on in the small towns where I lived, and everybody remembers me going around and, you know, sharing what was happening. I was a gabby kid. And then I moved to Yankton where they had a radio station and I could play - practice basketball. And then in the early evening, I would go and do a teenage disc jockey show.
But the real inspiration for me was my mother who graduated from high school at 16. But it was in the '30s. The family lost the farm. College cost a hundred dollars a year. She really wanted to be a journalist, but there was no way that she could get that training. She had the next-best job - she was - worked in the post office, which made her kind of a managing editor of the town. Everybody in our small towns came to the post office to get mail, to send mail. And she would come home at the end of the day with a wonderfully memorable piece of gossip of some kind about what had gone on in town and share it with me when I was 9, 10 or 11, and we would talk about the ramifications of it. I remember the day that Stalin died. There was an immigrant from Russia who was in this small town, walked in and said to my mother they're stoking it up down below today. And I still remember that thinking that's as good a lede as you can possibly have in journalism.
GROSS: So gossip and news in your mind was (laughter) was related. So I'm curious when you were a DJ as a teenager, what did you play?
BROKAW: Oh, I played - on radio - what did I play? - the golden era of early rock 'n' roll. You know, we had Elvis, for example, and I was a huge Fats Domino fan and all that great rock 'n' roll that came exploding across the landscape in a way that it stunned our parents because they'd grown up with Vaughn Monroe and Frank Sinatra and Perry Como. And suddenly, here was Elvis and all of his cohorts changing, first to rockabilly and then to rock 'n' roll. And it was very, very exciting to be able to play that at night. I remember The Coasters and "Young Blood" and all the songs that we played, and a lot of doo-wop as well at the time. So it made me very popular with the girls, which was part of the reason that I loved the job, quite honestly.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Tom Brokaw. His new memoir, "A Lucky Life Interrupted," is about how his life has changed since getting the diagnosis two years ago that he has multiple myeloma, a treatable but incurable blood cancer. He says he's now in remission. Brokaw stepped down as the anchor and managing editor of "NBC Nightly News" in 2005 after 21 years. He joined NBC News in 1966.
So where was the first place that you anchored a newscast?
BROKAW: The first big break for me came when I was - I'd kind of gone off the rails. I went off to University of Iowa as a whiz kid, all the promise of - you know, I'd been an athlete, an honor student and president of the class - went down to University of Iowa and dove very deep into a curriculum of sorority girls and drinking beer. And I didn't flunk out, but I certainly didn't distinguish myself.
I retreated to South Dakota, continued my errant ways. And then I actually dropped out of school with the encouragement of a wise head of a political science department saying, get it out of your system. Come back when you're ready to do something for us. And I got a job in Sioux City, Iowa, $75 a week. Monday through Friday, I was the booth announcer, announcing the station breaks. At the 7 o'clock news, I did the weather. And on Saturday nights, I did the news. And I began to think, you know, I may be able to do this to make a living.
So I went back to school and restored my reputation and restored my relationship with Meredith and got my degree and went to Omaha, where I did the morning news, three broadcasts every morning and sort of the "Today Show" and the noon news and the Saturday night news. So it was a crash course, but I was very grateful for the opportunity to be able to do that. And it helped me a lot.
GROSS: What necessitated you having to restore your relationship with Meredith, who later became your wife? Was it the beer?
BROKAW: Well, I really thought I was kind of getting away with it. One of my friends said, you just wrote that charm pony, Tom, across the landscape. And Meredith wrote me a very, very tough letter. We had been very close friends for a long time, and we were beginning to see each other just a little bit.
You have to understand that she was the most sought after girl in South Dakota. She was Miss South Dakota. She was an honor student. She was - had this wonderful reputation for being both friendly and utterly in control of her life. So she wrote this letter to me saying, I don't want you to call. I don't want you to show up. I don't want to see you again because I don't think you're going anywhere with your life, and it's terribly disappointing. Your parents don't know what to make of it, and all of your friends are disappointed as well. So please, Tom, no more.
That was a huge wake-up call for me, and I went to another friend who was one of our best students as well, and I had stayed in touch with all of these. And he said, she's right. So I thought, maybe I better change my ways, and I did. And she came to me later and said look, I went too far. That was wrong. And I said, no, I really had it coming. We had a cup of coffee, and a year-and-a-half later, we got married. And it really was the - one of the great pieces of good fortune I've ever had - probably the greatest.
GROSS: What do you consider to be your biggest break in journalism?
BROKAW: That's easy. I was in Omaha, and I was working for very little money. And it was hard. I was working six days a week. And I wanted to get out of Omaha. I really wanted to become a network correspondent. And then one night, I got a call from Atlanta, Ga., from WUSB, which was the most distinguished station certainly in the South and one of the most respected in the country. And they were in the middle of the civil rights movement. And the news director said, we hear wonderful things about you. We've looked at your tape. We'd like you to fly down here. There's an opening in our 11 o'clock news.
Now, I was a 25-year-old white Yankee being invited to come down to be a prospect to anchor the 11 o'clock news in the largest and most important city in the South. And I flew down, and at the end of the weekend, they said, we've got a job for you. I was quite stunned but thrilled. I went down there in March of 1965. I was on "Huntley-Brinkley" probably once a week, on NBC Radio a lot because I'd finish the news and then race off to parts of Alabama or Mississippi or parts of Georgia and cover these big breaking civil rights stories.
By August of that year, NBC came and said, we'd like you to go to work for us full-time. So I left Atlanta and went to California. And my first assignment was to cover this actor who was running for the Republican nomination for governor, and the Democratic Party thought that he couldn't possibly win. And I was on the buses with Ronald Reagan and covering his campaign. That was a big break.
GROSS: You became the sole anchor of the "NBC Nightly News" in 1983. What did being an anchor mean then?
BROKAW: I hope that it means the same thing today, is that internally, you're the captain of the team. You're the one who the others look to, and you kind of help set the pace for what kind of a news division you have, what's important that you should have on the air and how you do it. I always had the reputation, however, of being not just the anchor but someone who listened, as well, to my colleagues and was not afraid, during the 2:30 editorial rundown meeting, to have a vigorous exchange about what was important and what we should be covering that day.
And then on the air, Monday through Friday, doing the news, it's always kind of undefinable for me. You convey something that the public either trusts or it does not trust. And it has to do with the content and how you handle the news, but it also just has something to do with your persona. The real test of an anchor is when there is a very big event and the unexpected one. 9/11 is the quintessential example of that. And that day, it took everything that I knew as an anchor, as a citizen, as a father, as a husband to get through it. And I said later, I was so grateful to be the age that I was.
Now, at the same time, my colleagues and competitors Dan and Peter were also in their chairs doing a superb job of covering it. That's when the anchor job really is crystallized, I think, in the eyes of the public and for those of us who do that kind of work.
GROSS: Well, let me ask you about 9/11. As the story was breaking, you left home and went to "The Today Show" with Matt Lauer and Katie Couric...
GROSS: ...And helped describe what was happening and break the news as you were able to. I'm sure part of your instincts were to stay at home, assuming that you had some family at home at the time. Perhaps your wife was there. I mean...
BROKAW: No. No, that's not true. What happened is that my wife was in Montana.
BROKAW: She had arranged my first yoga lesson. It was just wrapping up when the call. When I heard a plane had hit the World Trade Center, at that point, everybody thought that it was some kind of an accident, but I knew I had to get there as quickly as possible. On the way there, I heard a very good radio reporter, Art Athens, say that he was in Washington Square Park, saw the second plane hit the tower, and I knew that the equation had changed, called Meredith in Montana, said, I don't know when we'll be able to talk again, but you better turn on the television set, went right to "The Today Show," sat down with Katie and with Matt.
And the first thing that we all agreed on was that, don't speculate. Just report what we know because we didn't know a lot. We didn't know where it was coming from, who was responsible, how many people were still left in those towers. And then gradually, the responsibility for leading the coverage evolved to me. And after the second tower went down, I thought I really have to prepare this country in a way for what we're in for. So I looked into the camera and said, this will change us.
GROSS: Well, didn't you...
BROKAW: And we're at war.
GROSS: ...Also say we're at war?
BROKAW: I did.
BROKAW: Right after I said, this will change us, I looked in the camera and said, we're at war here. Now, there was some kind of a guy in one of the Ivy League schools who has made an issue of saying Brokaw didn't have the authority to declare war, and it's really a constitutional authority. Well, it's a gross misunderstanding of what the role of a journalist is as well.
GROSS: Did you have any second thoughts about having said that?
BROKAW: No, I didn't because I thought that we needed to be coming to grips with reality, and it was pretty clear that we were at war at that point. I thought that the country needed to be prepared for the next phase of all that. And I also - I suppose I felt that I had been at it long enough and covered enough big stories and a lot of big changes in America - and this may be more self-centered than I realize - that I had a connection with the audience in which I could say that. And I thought that we all needed to hear the new reality.
GROSS: So I'm going to ask this next question as someone who's been known to have an occasional stammer that I have to deal with on the air.
GROSS: You have a kind of slur in your speech sometimes.
BROKAW: Yeah, I have an L issue. By and large, it's been - over the years it's been diminished a lot. I was unaware of it until I left South Dakota. And then I go back and listen to other people in South Dakota, and it's not uncommon.
In our family, we had chronic hearing loss. And I really think that it came out of that, that I didn't hear it the right way at the right time. And I also grew up in working-class neighborhoods where we didn't have speech therapists. It didn't really come up until I left South Dakota. And I had a wonderful speech coach in Omaha who kind of got me started in the right direction, and I've worked on it over years. But when I get tired is when it shows up most of all.
GROSS: Has it ever been an obstacle in your career?
BROKAW: I don't think so. You know, it has come up in the past, but I think people, by and large, didn't think that it was so acute that it was a distraction.
GROSS: When you say you worked on it, what did you do?
BROKAW: I just did exercises, you know, tongue placement and reciting various verses. You can take a word like million and you can substitute Ds for the Ls, middion (ph), and if you just use the same thing, then million comes out correctly.
GROSS: How did you know when it was time to retire from the anchor desk?
BROKAW: I don't think that there was one big nirvana moment. What I did know was that I have so many interests in life, and the seasons of news ratings and being an anchorman got in the way of some of that. I'd been at it more than 20 years at that point. You know, I'd gotten all the big stories of the '80s, which was one of the, you know, most fertile times in American journalism around the world and here as well. And so I have always thought that life and my professional life should have seasons. And I was now in a season which I thought it was time to go on and do something else besides be there every night at 6:30 in the chair whether there was something important happening or not. And because I had the advantage of being a younger man coming up - and John Chancellor and David Brinkley before me - they stepped aside at some point. I had my opportunity. I thought it was the turn of a new generation. I was going to stay active, and that was part of the deal, as I have. So - but I did know that it was time to just step away from the everyday stuff.
GROSS: Tom Brokaw, I want to thank you so much for talking with us. I wish you decent health and comfort and a continued active life in journalism. Thank you so much for sharing some of your thoughts with us.
BROKAW: Thank you. I'm still a very lucky guy. Thank you.
GROSS: Tom Brokaw's new memoir about how his diagnosis of multiple myeloma has changed his life is called "A Lucky Life Interrupted." Today is the 50th anniversary of the Ramsey Lewis recording "The 'In' Crowd." Our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will talk about its significance after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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