It was a day Kareem Abdul-Jabbar will never forget. “I received the news I had Philadelphia chromosome-positive chronic myeloid leukemia (Ph+ CML) on a Monday morning in December 2008 and was just shocked,” explains the NBA’s all-time leading scorer and six-time MVP. “I had a close friend who had died from a type of leukemia not long before my diagnosis, so I was scared I was facing the same fate.
Abdul-Jabbar learned of his condition after consulting a doctor about hot flashes and night sweats.
“Fortunately, my cancer was detected in its early stages,” he says. “I also am lucky to have a son who, at the time, was training to become a doctor, and was able to calm me down and be a solid sounding board until I could get all my questions answered by my specialist.”
Ph+ CML is a slow progressing type of blood cancer that’s characterized by an abnormality known as the Philadelphia chromosome, which produces a protein called BCR-ABL. BCR-ABL has been identified as the sole cause and driver of CML.
“‘This disease is treatable, but you have to stick to your prescribed regimen to get the most success.’”
“Soon after, I learned my type of cancer could be managed with drug therapy, regular visits to my doctor and through regular PCR blood tests, which measure the level of BCR-ABL in your body,” says Abdul-Jabbar, a spokesman for Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp.
Sharing his story
In 2009, Abdul-Jabbar told the world about his battle. “I went public with my story so I could help others with the disease know this was a fight they didn’t have to go through alone, and that advances in medicine had truly changed the face of CML. I have a unique position as a public figure, and I wanted to use that opportunity to inspire others to take the best care of their health.
“When I speak to other patients, the feedback I get is so rewarding. Many have said they only spoke about their diagnosis once they saw that I went public with mine. It really helped them feel less isolated. I’ve had the chance to meet and speak with so many patients who also have CML. It has been so fulfilling to be seen as not just some untouchable sports figure, and connect with those who have been diagnosed with cancer.”
Knowledge is power
For patients struggling with CML, the 68-year-old NBA Hall of Famer advises, “Talk with your doctor about what treatment may be right for you. Work with your doctor to establish clear treatment goals that are specific to you. Know your PCR levels, which means getting tested regularly, and the goals you should reach according to your personal treatment plan.
“Most important,” says Kareem, “Stay positive. This disease is treatable, but you have to stick to your prescribed regimen to get the most success.”
In recent years, Abdul-Jabbar has published an award-winning children’s book, written a novel, produced documentaries and served as a columnist. He’s living proof that CML, once a fatal disease, is not the end. For him, it’s a way to give back.
“I had an incredible athletic career, but it is both rewarding and humbling to be able to touch the lives of so many outside the sports arena,” he says, adding, “Staying so active has given me the chance to touch people in ways I never knew possible.”