“CANCER of the Myeloma: Why Not Me?”
Journalist Tom Bokaw kept daily journals during his battle with cancer. Those journals became the basis of what is now his book entitled, “A Lucky Life Interrupted: A Memoir of Hope”.
In today’s show, he talks about beating multiple Myeloma. And he also describes the symptoms that provoked him to visit the doctor. He says that he had lower back pain and he could not figure out why it hadn’t come up before. He was very physically active and he was pushing his body. He’d climbed mountains and went skiing. He did the regular physical activities, and he had pain that orthopedics would be able to figure out. However, his primary care doctor said that something else was going on. On his own, the doctor looked at his blood count and within three hours he found the diagnosis which was Multiple Myeloma. He was 60 % involved at that point, so he was 60% deep in cancer at that point. And in his case, when he got back pains like that, going to an orthopedic is not enough. He went to have his blood count because this disease strikes men especially in their 60s, so it tipped him off to get examined.
Multiple Myeloma Cancer 101
Dr. Oz sheds light on what this disease does to a patient. Cancer of the myeloma is cancer of the blood in the bone marrow. These Myeloma cells drive our immune system. When they function incorrectly, it can cause a lot of trouble. The specific issue in Tom’s case was compression fractures.
The cells in the bone are a lot, and they release into your blood stream, and allow your body to protect you from infections. But when those cells are growing inside the bone marrow, like in the case of Tom, it crowds out the healthy cells.
Tom further explains that, “…in my case, what happened is that in my pelvic area and in my spine, I had compression fractures. I had a hole in my pelvis which I had no idea that was there. And in my spine, I had four contraction fractures which were the disc areas which were the cushions between the parts of the spine. And I actually saw one of those and it was really ugly. They look like punched out holes in the spine, and when the bones lose its integrity they collapse.
The one thing that I’m dealing with is that I still have to compensate for the spine. And, the muscles in my back are doing that and as they do that, it causes me more pain than I’d like to have. All the doctors say, ‘Be honest with it—from a scale of 1 to 10, what’s your pain?’ And I say, it’s about 3 because I have a high tolerance for pain, and this should have been a 10 plus, frankly.”
The doctors who handle his case say they needed to know more from him to know more about what’s going on.
And Tom learned that water therapy is the best for him. He loves to swim and that’s the best therapy for his spine, so he is still working on that.
Optimism is His Best Myeloma Medicine
Tom explains that, “I used to do a lot of the old stuff—fishing, running… but as you know this cancer attacks the bone marrows. I have some issues with bone damage in my back and I’m trying to get beyond that. And I also turned 2 birthdays during the course of all these. And to put it bluntly, aging sucks if you wanna know the whole truth about it.” And he says that laughing. His humor about his cancer is just so assuring to other patients who also battle with the disease.
He is popular among friends as “Bokaw Lucky Star”. This is part of his ‘grace under pressure’ and he describes his ordeal with cancer as having a dim around that star.
Despite his painful encounter with cancer, Dr. Oz now asks how he maintains his humor and how he maintains a poise and optimism in the face of all the suffering.
Tom answers, “As a journalist, I’m used to seeing a lot of grief, war in the world, and so much triumph as well. And so you get an intuitive way of how to get through life, and I apply that to myself. I grew up in a working class family in South Dakota. We moved around a lot, my dad was a construction worker, and here I am an anchorman living in New York, and having all the good fortune that has come to me. I never took it for granted and I kind of thought ‘you gotta play it as it lays’. …here I am now with this serious disease, but I got access. I can get the best doctors, I have a support structure beginning with my family. Everyone needs to know about cancer on the outside looking in. You can be sympathetic to friends who have cancer…you cannot understand what cancer means until it hits you or your family”.
Dr. Oz then inquires about what Tom thinks regarding the war we are fighting with cancer in America. Because when he started his career as journalist, the survival rate of multiple Myeloma was half of what it is now. So he reveals in the show that, one of the encouraging things that his hematologist said to him was, he is more lucky because there have been 50% more progress in this disease in the last five years alone, and it’s happening every month. So Tom is saying that you have to be an informed patient.
At this point Tom shares an anecdote. “Ronald Reagan used to tell a story about a little boy who came down one morning on Christmas. And, there was enormous pile of hard meat horse, and started digging and say, ‘there’s gotta be a pony in here somewhere. So, that’s how I kind of gone through life”.
Tom Bokaw: Not Taking Anything For Granted
Tom wrote about Grace Generation. This is a generation that faced insurmountable odds and yet with grace has persevered. So, Dr. Oz asks what he feels about the daunting odd that Myeloma is incurable. Tom says that the doctors told him right away that it is incurable but treatable. He is an optimist and he thought, “you know, it’s gonna turn out all okay”. He adds, “There were some difficult times I had professionally, when things go wrong and I kept thinking it’s gonna turn out okay. …and I was helped as well by the confidence and love of my family. My wife has a very cool character who says ‘hey, when it doesn’t work out, we still have each other, I have confidence in you, you’re gonna find your way through this’. So, that helped me a lot when it came to cancer”.
Dr. Oz remarks that Tom had seen the world change, he has witnessed it firsthand and so now, how has cancer changed ‘Tom Bokaw’. He replies that his friend Sam Brown encouraged him to think ‘why not me?’, instead of ‘why me?’. The point Sam Brown was making is, “We’ve had a great life, we were at the peak of our professions, but we’re males and we’re in our mid 60s, mid 70s. And the consequences of that evolution in your life means you’re likely to get cancer”. So today, Tom says he does not take anything for granted. He just concentrates on people that he really cares about, and that’s all he wants to spend time with. His tolerance for people that he doesn’t care about turned to Zero because he doesn’t have to deal with them. So, he doesn’t have to answer multiple emails and answer calls.
What Changed When Tom Got Myeloma Cancer?
To describe aptly what he has become since the onset of his cancer, Tom quoted a paragraph in his inspiring book about how to live with cancer. He wrote, “It’s not enough to rage rage against the dying of the light. There’s also time to quietly savor the advantages of a lucky life and use them to fill every waking moment with emotional and intellectual pursuits worth every precious time that we have. Life. What’s left? Bring it on.”
He’s never been more excited about anything than writing more. He says he loves writing. He has a dual profession, being a television anchorman and a writer. But he is going to spend more time writing, and more time saying no. He is going to condense his schedule and do things that he truly cares about. He talks about his three grandchildren fondly and he plans to spend more time knowing them.
So what’s next for Tom and for all the cancer patients in America? Keep on living, and live your remaining days with more family time, more optimism and more grace. Like Tom says, do not take anything for granted. Learn more from Tom Bokaw in his best selling book: “A Lucky Life Interrupted: A Memoir of Hope”