Abdul-Jabbar, 62, revealed during an interview Monday that he has Philadelphia chromosome-positive chronic myeloid leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow that produces cancerous blood cells.
The disease was diagnosed in December. But Abdul-Jabbar said his condition can be managed by taking oral medication daily, seeing his specialist every other month and getting his blood analyzed regularly. He said he expects to lead a healthy life.
Abdul-Jabbar acknowledged he was scared after visiting his doctor and learning of the diagnosis.
“The word ‘leukemia’ is a very frightening word,” he said in a phone interview from New York. “In many instances, it’s a killer and it’s something that you have to deal with in a very serious and determined way if you’re going to beat it.”
Medical studies have shown that many patients with chronic myeloid leukemia who are treated can control the disease without its progressing to a move advanced stage.
Dr. Gary Schiller, with the Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center at UCLA, said treatment for this type of leukemia has “dramatically improved” in the last decade thanks to new drugs that produce “remission of really high quality in 85% of patients . . . [who] function normally with very, very few side effects.”
Schiller said that while the drugs do not cure the disease, they do control it, in much the same way high blood pressure is managed by medication.
Abdul-Jabbar said he is being treated with a medicine that specifically targets the abnormal protein that causes leukemia. “I responded well to the treatment,” he said. “I just want that to continue to keep happening.”
Abdul-Jabbar said he wasn’t feeling particularly ill last year, but was having frequent hot flashes and was sweating constantly. He said his doctor told him to get some blood tests.
“By having the hot flashes, I knew something was up. But I didn’t think that it was going to be something as serious as leukemia,” Abdul-Jabbar said.
Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, played 20 pro seasons, 14 with the Lakers, and retired after the 1988-89 season.
He was known throughout his career as a player who took his health seriously; he was one of the first pro athletes to take up yoga.
“If it wasn’t for my health-consciousness, I would have just passed on the effects [of the leukemia symptoms] as something I could ignore,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “But I felt it didn’t make sense to ignore it.”
His family has a history of cancer, Abdul-Jabbar said. A grandfather and an uncle died of colon cancer. “So I have the gene for that,” he said. “Cancer is a scary thing and you have to deal with it seriously.”
Abdul-Jabbar, a special assistant coach with the Lakers, said his condition won’t affect his work with the team; he said he plans to fly back to Los Angeles on Friday. There have been reports that he could be offered a consulting job with the Memphis Grizzlies.
Abdul-Jabbar said he spoke out about his disease because he wants to shed light on leukemia. More information about the condition is available on his Facebook page, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Patient Advocate, including links to websites providing details about the condition.
“The fact that you can manage the disease means that you can live your life,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “The fact that you have to go and get your blood analyzed and consult with your doctor might be a minor inconvenience, or you have to take your medication every day. But if you do these things, you can lead a normal live.”