In December of 2008, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA’s all-time leading scorer and NBA Hall of Famer was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia. While in Chicago for the Living Well with CML patient education summit, he was interviewed by Redeye.com, a Chicago publication, about, among other things, his diagnosis of CML and life after the disease.
The first person I talked to [about having the disease] was my son. He’s a doctor now, but when I was diagnosed he was still in med school. He really helped me understand the nature of leukemia as we know it now. He told me, “You don’t know what kind of leukemia you have, so be patient, do what your doctors tell you, and you may be able to be in a position where it’s not going to be as life-threatening as you perceive.”
At the time, I thought I was going to die in a couple of months. When I first got diagnosed it was pretty, a very, very scary moment. I got the confirmation from the people who did the blood work on like a Thursday. And then I set up my appointment to go to the UCLA oncology on the following Tuesday. So I had a really long weekend where I was getting ready to die [laughs] and all this stuff. I went to UCLA and we found out very quickly that I had CML, and they said “There’s something that can be done to treat it. There’s a medication. It’s called Gleevec.”
I went for close to two years taking Gleevec. Didn’t get to the goals that we wanted me to get to. I wanted to get a molecular response, which means down in the molecular level, where you have no bad white blood cells. And we weren’t quite getting there. So we tried a second generation medication called Tasigna and it worked. My blood got more and more healthy, and now it’s very healthy. You’re never ever out of the woods, but you have to keep doing what you’re doing, and if I keep doing that, I’m going to continue to stay well.
Tell us about some of your favorite interactions with other patients.
The most fun I’ve had and the most humbling and the things that I’ve done that makes me feel the best is when I get to interact with kids. They haven’t had a chance to live their lives, and they don’t complain. They’re like, “Oh, I’m dealing with it.” They’re just trying to be kids. It really makes you humble. It makes you appreciate the fact that hey, you’ve had a chance to live your life and do a lot of things. And maybe I wasn’t as appreciative of that as I should have been before I was diagnosed. All the days that you live, all of a sudden, they take on a different status.
*Correction: The original article from Redeye stated that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was diagnosed in 2009. He was diagnosed in 2008 and this post has been updated to include the correct date.