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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – In His Own Words

by Laura Shipp

Celebrity Cancer Survivor

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar dominated the NBA for 20 years, from 1969 to 1989, perfecting his trademark move – the skyhook – a unique hook shot that few could block and even fewer could replicate. He led the UCLA Bucks to three NCAA championships and then went on to win one NBA championship with the Milwaukee Bruins and five more with the Los Angeles Lakers. Many words have been used to describe Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: sports legend, basketball god, most valuable player, champion. But another one has recently been added to the list: survivor.

In December 2008, Kareem was diagnosed with Philadelphia chromosome-positive chronic myeloid leukemia, or Ph+ CML. Notoriously media-elusive, he kept his diagnosis quiet for almost a year before coming out last November. Kareem recently let Coping® in on his life with cancer and how it hasn’t really changed all that much. Here’s what he had to say.

Celebrity Cancer Survivor

You recently went public with your CML diagnosis, can you tell me about when you were diagnosed and how you found out?
I was having hot flashes and sweats, and they were very persistent and became more and more intense. I didn’t know what was going on. I mentioned it to my doctor, and he said that I should get some blood work done. The results came back, and my white blood cell count was sky high. My doctor then sent me to a specialist, and they diagnosed it very quickly as Ph+ CML. It all happened within four days.

What went through your mind when your doctor first told you that you had leukemia?
Fear. It is a very frightening situation. The word leukemia, to me at the time, was like a death sentence. Here I am thinking that maybe I am seeing the last days of my life.

That must have been tough to process.
Yes it is. That is an understatement.

What is the current status of your cancer?
I am fortunate that my type of leukemia is manageable. I see my doctor on a regular basis, get my blood analyzed, take my meds, and I am able to continue to live my life in all the ways that are important to me. I can continue to coach and spend time with my family.

Are there any changes that you’ve had to make in your daily life?
There are some changes that I have had to make, but given the fact that the alternative would be a serious downturn in my health, I don’t find them to be a problem at all. It is just something that I have to incorporate into my lifestyle.

So you’ve created a new normal for yourself.

Was that a difficult transition?
Well when you think of the alternative, it is not hard at all. You do what you have to do to stay alive and stay healthy and thank heaven that you can be healthy.

As an athlete, you have taken care of your body your entire life. Did it surprise you that this happened to you?
No, it didn’t surprise me. This is part of being alive. When you accept life, you have to accept that it is going to end sometime. My own philosophy on life has prepared me to accept whatever happens at the end of it.

You kept your diagnosis quiet for about a year. What made you decide to come forward?
I felt that I could use my public profile as a vehicle to help educate people and give them the opportunity to learn what they need to learn about Ph+ CML. Unless people understand what they can do about it, they can give in to despair.

Do you feel like people treat you any differently now that you have cancer?
A lot of people felt that I was unapproachable prior to this. Now I have people come up to me and tell me about how leukemia has affected them, their loved ones, or people they have known or admired, and it gives us a new reason to relate.

Before you went public with your diagnosis, who did you tell? Just your family?
I just told my family and the people who I have been close to all of my life. Just so that they knew what was going on. My middle son, Amir, is studying to be a doctor, and he was a great resource. He was able to translate the medical jargon for me. Talking with him really helped calm me down and helped me understand that this did not have to be a death sentence, and that I needed to work with the professionals who know what they are doing.

Medical jargon can be tough for a newly diagnosed person to comprehend.
Yes, it is another language.

How did the rest of your family take the news?
They were very happy to find out that my situation was manageable and that if I was conscientious about my treatment, I could continue to stick around and be a part of their lives.

It’s good to have that family support system behind you.
It is wonderful. It is a great reason to be alive.

Are there any difficult challenges you’ve had to face on this journey?
I don’t think it has been difficult. I am just adapting to a new challenge in my life. It is something I’ve had to do my whole career as an athlete. The various opponents that I have faced on the basketball court presented different problems, and you have to be able to adjust in order to overcome these challenges. Facing CML is kind of the same way.

What one good thing, if any, has come from having cancer?
You never know what is going to come up in your life. This has enabled me to relate to people on a different basis, and it has given me an opportunity to inspire other people to cope and adjust and not give in to despair. That is such a sad state when people find out that they have a problem and they despair about it. There is no need for that.

How do you keep your positive attitude? Have you always been that way?
I think I have. This is how I’ve had to live my life, always facing a new challenge. Going into the NBA, I had to prepare myself to compete against people who wanted to see me fail, and I had to be ready to show them that that wasn’t going to work.

Many Coping readers are going though the same things you have been through. What do you say to people who are also facing cancer?
What I would say is that I am coping with it, and very effectively. Working with the specialists who know about cancer and can help you deal with it is a very important key. You have to follow their instructions and be willing to do the things that are necessary to overcome this situation.

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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wants people with Ph+ CML to know that resources are available for this condition. He says, “You can go to to find out about the disease and the different ways of treating it. You can also go to and interact with other people who have the disease. You can discuss what other people did in order to cope and then figure out your own game plan.” Kareem has also set up a Facebook page – Kareem Abdul- Jabbar, CML Patient and Advocate.