Tom Brokaw readily acknowledges that he has lived a pretty charmed life. He drops boldface names with force, in part because his is one of them.
Brokaw quickly acknowledges what could be the most alienating part of his new memoir: that he is a man of privilege and has lived the cloistered life of the square-jawed, well-compensated network anchorman for decades. If this book were about that life, I would have found it quite easy to put down.
Instead, “A Lucky Life Interrupted” reminds us forcefully how cancer can level life’s playing field, as Brokaw comes face to face with the one thing most of us dread — the prospect of sudden mortality.
Full disclosure: Tom Brokaw was the anchor of “NBC Nightly News” during the five years I worked there in the 1990s. During that period he was a larger-than-life figure at the top of his game. He owned every room he entered and always had the last word. Presidents and kings came calling. Years later, they still do. He was America’s favorite newsreader, the man who had clambered atop the Berlin Wall as it fell, grilled diplomats and dictators, and authored a string of immensely popular “Greatest Generation” books. You could be forgiven for imagining that he would outlive us all.
Imagine his shock when he realized that the timetable was not up to him. In 2013, cancer proved to be the interruption that gave this book its title. What started as a sore back turned into a diagnosis of multiple myeloma, a cancer that eats and weakens cells and bones. It was a rude disruption that he kept mostly to himself for some time and that turned out to be far more serious than he admitted (when he finally did admit it) to viewers, many friends, colleagues and fans.
Part of the reason he kept the dire nature of his illness mostly to himself, he writes, is that he was in denial. Plus, he was one of the most famous men in the world.
“I did not want to become a photo on the Internet: Tom Brokaw, cancer victim,” he writes.
But it was Brokaw’s fame that, in many ways, kept him lucky. He was immediately swept into the most high-end precincts of Cancer World — to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, N.Y., (where he served on the board) and to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Hospital in New York.
He is pretty matter-of-fact in the retelling in this slim volume. But because we know his speaking voice so well, the tale seems straightforward, because reading his words on the page is a bit like having him read you the news.
Born in 1940, Brokaw writes that he grew up with a father “for whom pain was a personal burden,” and he learned how to keep discomfort to himself. But it becomes clear that he was gobsmacked by the diagnosis, the treatment and the clear limits the disease placed on his life — the places he couldn’t go, the noticeable weight loss, the times when he was unable to walk unaided.
At one point, he writes, 60 percent of his blood was polluted by the myeloma.
“Cancer is running my life,” he writes. “And although I am central to the efforts to first slow it and then drive it away, I feel more like a test tube than the man in the cockpit, hands on the controls.”
Brokaw is clear about his many advantages in life. Yes, he had access to excellent care and a generous insurance plan to manage costs that might have crippled other patients. He also had a physician daughter, Jennifer, to manage his case, and a tough and loving wife, Meredith, to manage him (which sounds like the harder job).
This is unlike Brokaw’s other books, which are largely about other people’s glories. And it is not self-pitying in the least. But the experience has clearly opened his eyes to a different set of challenges — especially for those in need of health care and for people who struggle to get through every day without benefit, perhaps, of family or finances. Brokaw, ever the clear-eyed newsman, does not campaign for fixes in this book. But he bluntly points out societal shortcomings that make it so much easier for those with so much.
How does it end? It doesn’t. Not really. His 16 months of treatment worked, he says. And in fact, I glanced up while writing this to see him on “Meet the Press,” chatting away about the 2016 election campaign.
Brokaw doesn’t paste a smiley face on his story. Again and again the book returns to stories of loss but also of grace, luck and the beauty of having another swing at bat.
Gwen Ifill is co-anchor of the “PBS NewsHour” and moderator of “Washington Week.”
“A Lucky Life Interrupted: A Memoir of Hope,” by Tom Brokaw (230 pages; Random House; $27)