NBA Legend's Message to Patients and Survivors of Cancer: Listen to Your Doctors

Basketball MVP and cancer survivor Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sat down with CURE for an interview about his experience battling CML. 
BY Andrew J. Roth
PUBLISHED May 25, 2016
As a six-time NBA Champion, 19-time All-Star, six-time Most Valuable Player and the league’s all-time leading scorer, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is regarded as one of the greatest professional basketball players of all time. He is familiar with the concepts of discipline and overcoming adversity, but not only because of his athletic career.

In 2008, Abdul-Jabbar was diagnosed with Philadelphia chromosome-positive chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) after experiencing hot flashes and sweats. He was treated with two targeted therapies — tyrosine kinase inhibitors: Gleevec (imatinib) and Tasigna (nilotinib). Last year, Abdul-Jabbar underwent a quadruple coronary bypass surgery on his 68th birthday but recovered fully. Today, he is a spokesperson for Novartis, the pharmaceutical company that manufactures both drugs that allowed him to survive cancer.

In March 2016, Abdul-Jabbar was asked to speak at the 20th Annual International Congress on Hematologic Malignancies®: Focus on Leukemias, Lymphomas and Myeloma, a meeting of over 125 oncologists and other oncology professionals. At the meeting, Abdul-Jabbar spoke with Heal about surviving CML, his role as an advocate and his advice to patients and survivors.

Why did you want to come to this meeting of oncologists to speak?

My goal was to let the people in attendance know what my story was, how having leukemia can affect your life and the things you can do about it. In talking about all this publicly, I want people to know that we’re all vulnerable to cancer in some way. Many people have the chance to beat this cancer, if you do it the right way and follow the instructions of your doctors — they’re seeing really good results with new drugs.

When fist diagnosed, what did you know about CML?

I had no idea about the disease. I thought leukemia was something exotic that happened to other people. And then, all of a sudden, it happened to me. 

Do you think that's how most people think of it?

I think so, probably. Unless you have an indication that you have a problem early in your life, you don’t expect it to come down on you later on in life. You think you passed that point. But these things can happen at any time.

What has your experience been like fighting CML? Do you think your background as an athlete affected your outlook?

My history as an athlete has given me the discipline to do the things I need to do to maintain my treatment regimen. Some people just don’t want to be bothered — they’re too caught up with the ordinary things in their lives. You need to deal with cancer, be aggressive and respect the fact that it can kill you. If you don’t do that, it will be a lot harder. Fighting cancer requires that you allow medications and other treatments to work by doing what the doctors tell you and following through.

Do you keep up with current CML research? Are you familiar with what's going on?

I’m relatively familiar with what’s going on. I try to stay current with what’s happening in preparation for the public speaking engagements I do.

Are there things you're excited about in the field?

I think that the methods they used to discover Gleevec and Tasigna — that template is being applied to other cancers. They’re having some success treating other cancers with the same approach of finding out the genetic component and treating the genetic abnormalities. It’s very personalized. People used to think leukemia was just leukemia and now they’re finding out there’s a lot of different types and subtypes of the disease. The more we know, the easier it is to find treatment.

What is your advice for people who have CML and are just receiving the diagnosis?

For people who are just finding out that they have this disease, I would suggest they absolutely follow the instruction of their doctor. They know what they’re doing. The success with new drugs makes the jobs of doctors more pleasant. Some of the doctors I’ve talked to used to say that they’d do their best with treatment, but patients would still die. And now, physicians are treating people and those people are going on with their lives and forgetting about their disease. That’s the way it should be.

Personally, have you been able to continue living a normal life since your diagnosis?

Yes, I have. It doesn’t intrude that much. I take the time to visit my doctor on a regular basis and take my meds, but beyond that, it hasn’t been much of a burden.

What are some of the obstacles that remain regarding leukemia and awareness of this cancer?

I think incorrect information and lack of information is an issue. The more informed people are, the easier it is to achieve things we want to achieve in combatting these diseases.
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