The venerable news anchor shares how an incurable illness made him want to live again.
Two and a half weeks ago, Tom Brokaw got out of bed at his Montana ranch and looked out his window. “It was a kaleidoscope,” he told a lunch gathering in Connecticut yesterday. “Nothing matched.” He couldn’t get his vision to focus.
After stepping out of bed, he reeled across the room, completely out of balance, then reassured himself that the mysterious ailment would soon resolve on its own. Figuring the cause might be dehydration, he took a cold shower and drank some water. But his vertigo only got worse, and now he could barely walk.
A CT scan and an MRI at the local hospital in Billings confirmed he wasn’t having a stroke; nor did it seem like there was anything wrong with his heart. As for what was causing the strange symptoms, the doctors there hadn’t a clue. Brokaw didn’t get that answer until he received a full neurological workup at the Mayo Clinic—after being Medevac’d to Minnesota that very night.
The diagnosis? Vestibular neuritis, an inflammatory disorder of nerves in the inner ear. The relatively uncommon condition can cause a person to feel dizzy and lose their sense of balance. “So it reminded me of my college days,” quipped Brokaw.
Then, the former long-time anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News, revealed why he’d shared this story: “To remind us all about just how complicated the human body is.”
“We’re grateful when something like this comes along,” he said, “because it can be cured—and it is not in any way going to be a permanent debilitating condition.”
And that, of course, was a very different reason from the one that had brought him and his fellow lunch mates to gather that afternoon—at a day of scientific panels and presentations sponsored by the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation.
Multiple myeloma, he said, “had been a vague phrase” in his life until he himself was diagnosed with this blood cancer, which strikes just over 30,000 Americans each year and kills about 12,600.
“The oncologist—who seemed to have been out of school the day they mentioned bedside manners—turned to me and said, ‘Well, you have a malignancy: It’s called multiple myeloma.’ These were his very first phrases, Brokaw recalled. “‘You know people who have died from this: Geraldine Ferraro, who ran for Vice President of the United States; Frank Reynolds, the former ABC anchorman.’”
“I was of two different frames of mind,” said the man who had filled millions of living rooms night after night, who had covered White Houses and wars, and who had memorably chronicled The Greatest Generation. “I was (a) a journalist, and (b) someone who was just told he had a cancer that, in fact, was incurable at that stage. And I was trying to sort the two of them out. So we worked our way through what the consequence were going to be. And that moment—that day—was the rebirth of Tom Brokaw.”
“I had just been told I had a terminal cancer, but it gave me a new life,” he continued. “That’s what brings me here today—because I felt an obligation as a human being, as a citizen, and as a journalist to share what I was learning about this condition. I entered that very vast universe of people with one kind of cancer or another. And the fact of the matter is, it has, in so many ways, made my life much richer.
“I’ve had the luckiest life of anybody I know. I grew up in a working class family in South Dakota, married an astonishing woman, and 55 years later we’re still together through good news and bad news—including cancer.”
“Cancer gave me a new reason to want to live. And it gave me a new mission as a human being about the relationships that I would develop with other people.”
Those are the words I’d like to leave you with this weekend—the words of just another American hero, running bravely into battle. Because that’s how you save the next generation from having to fight the same war.
This essay appears in today’s edition of the Fortune Brainstorm Health Daily. Get it delivered straight to your inbox.