Book Review: A Lucky Life Interrupted by Tom Brokaw

Streams and rivers are like life – they have a source and destination. They have stretches of calmness in turmoil. No day on the river is ever exactly the same, as it is not in life.”

The above quote is from Tom Brokaw’s 2015 book  A Lucky Life Interrupted, a memoir of the author’s fight with a rare form of blood cancer.  I was inspired to read this book after listening to a short radio interview with Mr. Brokaw.   The author’s laid back delivery describing his life changing diagnoses along with the host’s enthusiasm for the book compelled me to pick up this slim volume and see what it was all about.

The book is divided into sections, each of which titled with a season of the year.  In this way the author is able to chronicle his progress from diagnoses to treatment to remission to maintenance.  Multiple myeloma is a cancer of the blood that responds well to treatment but is as of yet incurable. Once under control Brokaw describes maintenance similar to that of a diabetic.  Diagnosed at the age of 73, an age when most of us are slowing down (not Brokaw), was a shock to the robust and active author.  Not only was his a demanding profession (and continues to be), he has been a very active, life long athlete and outdoors man; hunter, fisherman, cyclist, adventurer.

I must admit that fifty to sixty pages into the book I was starting to feel this was a vanity piece, impressing readers with all his famous friends and top notch doctors from hospitals on whose boards he sits.  I almost stopped reading.  But continuing on I found this wasn’t boasting from this usually modest man; it was his way of saying that cancer can afflict anyone, anytime, rich, poor or otherwise.  He points out the advantage someone in his socioeconomic position has over the other ‘99.9%’….yes, 99.9%.  The book explores three distinct themes all set to the backdrop of Brokaw’s extraordinary (and lucky, as the title suggests) life.

The first theme, while not the most immediate in the book but one that hits home for me, has to do with aging.  As a very active person myself, I felt a close kinship as Brokaw writes about the slow down of our bodies.  Active people are acutely aware of their bodies, strengths, weaknesses, aches and pains. Are we able to participate in activities at the same level we did five, ten, fifteen years ago?  This physical breakdown occurs very slowly so it’s difficult to assess, except we often compare ourselves to the younger people with whom we participate in activities (in my case younger cyclists).  So while we still may be able to ‘hang’ with the guys 25 years younger it takes more effort, plus instead of being at the head of the pack we’re finishing toward the middle or rear. That, and recovery takes days instead of hours.  I accept this knowing that at least I’m in the pack!  Some of us slow down at a younger age than others, although I ride with guys ten to fifteen years older who have yet to slow down significantly….it’s all relative to our own physiology.

The most significant theme of A Lucky Life Interrupted is management of one’s illness, in Brokaw’s case cancer.  While lucky in that multiple myeloma is treatable for most, it still takes a big effort to get under control and then maintain.  Again, he freely admits that he’s in that very, very small minority that has the money and resources for the best treatment.  How many among us would be able to afford the $500 a day for one pill (indefinitely) if our insurer decided not to cover that cost?  And how many of us sit on the board of the Mayo Clinic where some of the finest oncologists in the world practice.  Again, Brokaw is not bragging, he’s just accepting his luck but at the same time describing how we each need to be our own advocate, plus we each need to have an advocate, or he as calls it ‘ombudsman‘, in our court.  He’s passionate about having a team not only of doctors but someone outside the ‘system’ for whom one can use as a sounding board for all the advice coming at you;  a friend who has been through a tough illness or disease, a doctor not associated with your treatment….anyone who can disseminate all the information from doctors and nurses who usually don’t communicate well with one another.   Read this part of the book carefully; hopefully it’s information you’ll never need but if you do it’s good to understand.

The book is a history lesson too.  Brokaw compares historical events to the healthcare industry; Reagan’s stance on the reforms in the USSR; “trust but verify”.  The 9/11 attacks on the US similar to the way cancer attacks the human body.  But he writes most elegantly about World War II, a subject that he has written books, comparing his luck at surviving cancer while so many in that conflict, notably the Normandy invasion, lost their lives at such young ages.  It sounds strange for a memoir about ones survival from cancer, comparing it to historical events from the last hundred years, but it works.  This is a worthwhile read I believe many of you will enjoy no matter your age.  Enjoy!

 

 

Fate? Luck? Divine Intervention?

I could have been born a squirrel in a tree in India in the year 1284….fate? luck? Divine Intervention? God’s will?  Or I could have been born in Hungary or Poland in 1924 and suffered through some terrible years.

In all probability someone born during the Age Of Enlightenment may have felt the same as we do today. How lucky to be born in a time of such advancement during which modern technology, as it was, made life so much easier than in past generations. The same could be said of people and societies throughout the time man has occupied earth.  And although we think we’re living in the greatest technological age, a hundred or two hundred or a thousand years from now people will look back and wonder how we were able to get by with such primitive technology.  But what of those born in a time when none of these advances mattered, where geography and politics were not so kind, where surviving from one day to the next is your full time job? 

These thoughts were on our minds as we toured Auschwitz and Birkenau, the notorious Nazi concentration death camps outside of Krakow where a million people were murdered.  These thoughts crossed our minds as we toured the Warsaw Uprising Museum which displays in graphic detail the total destruction of that city.  And it crossed our minds as we toured the purposefully claustrophobic galleries at Budapest’s Terror Museum, which graphically illustrates the deplorable living conditions, death and destruction its occupiers imposed on Hungarians, Hungarians who complain to this day that their government continues to deny their alliance with Germany in WWII, while that’s exactly what they did, to the detriment of its citizens.  How lucky we are to have been born in a country that has never been occupied by a more powerful neighbor nor attacked by hostile forces, that only wages war far from our shores, that allows us freedom to do as we please?  Do we consider this as we impatiently wait in traffic, angry that we may be late getting to Starbucks?

The history Margaret and I learned while traveling through Eastern Europe was definitely enlightening.  While we thoroughly enjoyed the culture and scenery, we were also profoundly moved by the tenacity of the locals we met.  For most, even though they personally didn’t live through the worst of times such as WWI and WWII or the holocaust, it was only a handful of years ago that Poland and Hungary were under Soviet rule, recent enough to have a clear memory of it.  It surprised us to learn of a recent phenomenon; young Poles learning from parents and grandparents that, although raised in the Christian faith, they are actually Jewish.  People denounced their religion in order to stay alive and are just now learning the truth, many returning to their original faith. 

But life goes on and we can only wish that we learn from history, and as humans not to commit the same mistakes.  Does it look like that today?  A resounding NO, but one can only hope that one day we will.  In the mean time Margaret and I will keep traveling, learning and experiencing cultures other than our own, and continue to be thankful we were born in a time and place where daily survival is not a full time job. 

I promise my next post won’t be so ‘heavy’.  Food and drink is always front and center when we travel (I gained five pounds on this trip) and Eastern Europe didn’t fail to deliver!  More on that soon….

 

Site of Birkenau crematorium
Memorial, Birkenau crematorium

 

To learn more about the experience of visiting a Nazi concentration camp click HERE for an excellent post by a good friend and journalist who visited a few years ago.