Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Takes on a Tough Opponent:Chronic Myeloid Leukemia

Mar 4, 2011
Contemporary Oncology®Spring 2010Volume 2Issue 1

Author of six bestselling books, a television and film actor, and a filmmaker; Abdul-Jabbar is gaining fame for a role he never wanted: that of a chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) patient.

Anyone who knows anything about basketball recognizes the name Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He is a National Basketball Association (NBA) legend, scoring 38,387 points in his 20-year career—more than any player before or since. He is also the author of six bestselling books, a television and film actor, and a filmmaker. Now, Abdul-Jabbar is gaining fame for a role he never wanted: that of a chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) patient.

In late 2008, Abdul-Jabbar started to experience hot flashes and sweats, which began to happen with increasing frequency. After blood test results showed a white blood cell count described as “sky high,” his physician directed him to see a hematologist, who broke the news to Abdul-Jabbar that he had Philadelphia chromosome—positive (Ph ) CML. Such a pronouncement has the power to scare even legends. “I was very frightened. In our culture, if you say the word ‘leukemia,’ it usually connotes a death sentence,” Abdul-Jabbar said.

He found reassurance at the University of California-Los Angeles oncology department, where Abdul-Jabbar went for additional testing. Experts explained that recent progress in treating CML had essentially transformed it from a terminal condition to a chronic one. Abdul-Jabbar also turned to his middle son Amir, now attending his third year of medical school, for help in understanding his diagnosis. After more than a year of treatment, Abdul-Jabbar said it comforts him to know that his situation is manageable. “If I go to see my doctor regularly and take my meds and get my blood analyzed on a regular basis, I will be able to manage my Ph CML and continue to live my life in all the meaningful ways that are important to me.”

That includes continuing as a special assistant coach for the Lakers and developing a documentary on his critically acclaimed book, On the Shoulders of Giants, about the Harlem Renaissance and its lingering influence on athletics, literature, music, and politics. He is also working on book number seven. Add to this Abdul-Jabbar’s new hat—Novartis spokesperson and advocate for patients with CML—and it is clear that the blood disorder has not slowed him down. Abdul-Jabbar acknowledges having to make a few adjustments, but his long athletic career prepared him for the challenge. “When you’re a competitive athlete, you have to adjust what you do depending on your opponent,” he explained. “Now that Ph CML is my opponent, I’ve had to make certain adjustments in my lifestyle, but they haven’t been drastic, and they have proven very effective,” he said.

Abdul-Jabbar said it is important for patients with CML to get the information they need to make the right choices about their care. He said one of his missions is to increase patients’ awareness about how essential it is to get regular checkups and to determine exactly what is happening with their health. “You can’t benefit from all the developments of modern medicine unless you get analyzed and make sure that you monitor what’s going on in your body,” he explained.

Although CML is far less frightening than it used to be, it remains a serious illness, and not all of a new patient’s questions are medical in nature. Abdul-Jabbar suggests patients visit CML Earth (www.cmlearth.com), a Novartis-sponsored Website, to connect with others living with CML and exchange stories about their experiences coping with the disease. “I also have a Facebook page—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar CML Patient and Advocate—that people can go to where they can find out exactly what I did,” he said.

While Abdul-Jabbar is often described as a private person, this is not the first time he has used his celebrity to raise awareness of cancer. In 2006, he recorded public service announcements and gave media interviews as a representative of the NBA Cares program to convince men to get screened for prostate cancer.

Abdul-Jabbar earned a place in history with a college basketball career that saw him named the “Greatest College Basketball Player Ever” by ESPN in 2008 and a dominating NBA career, first with the Milwaukee Bucks and then the Los Angeles Lakers, that culminated with 6 designations as the NBA’s Most Valuable Player and 19 as an All-Star. He served as inspiration to scores of today’s professional basketball players. But to Abdul-Jabbar, that is not enough.

In On the Shoulders of Giants, he wrote, “If the pinnacle of my influence as a human being was perfecting the skyhook [his signature shot], I would not feel very satisfied.” He said he decided to become a spokesperson on CML because his “public prominence was a great platform…to help raise awareness and help educate people.” He wants to help other patients gain the necessary knowledge to cope with the disease. “I’ve always believed that knowledge is power, and for people who have to deal with Ph CML, knowing what to do is a very important piece.”

In explaining his motivation for writing about the individuals who lived the Harlem Renaissance, Abdul-Jabbar said in the Forward to On the Shoulders of Giants, “The people I write about fought and struggled and suffered, and I want all that to count for something. I want their history to inform and excite and inspire the reader. As it did me.” Now he is making his own struggles count, using them to educate and inspire others.

“People who feel that they have to keep everything under a bushel don’t necessarily help everybody else,” he said. “I had a great opportunity to help people get an idea that Ph CML is not a death sentence and that it can be managed,” he explained. “They should have a very positive outlook on how they deal with it.” One cannot help but conclude that even if the 7-foot-2 former NBA center stood a few feet shorter, the largess of his spirit, his penetrating intellect, and his indefatigable determination would still combine to make him a giant.

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