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Basketball great Abdul-Jabbar has cancer

By Miriam Falco, CNN
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Abdul-Jabbar battles cancer
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Retired star, 62, says he has chronic myeloid leukemia
  • Celebrity patient tells others: Take your medicine
  • Disease "doesn't impact my life too significantly," he says
  • CML strikes 5,000 a year, kills 470, cancer society says
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NEW YORK (CNN) -- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, one of the greatest college and professional basketball players of all time, says he has been diagnosed with a form of blood cancer.

"I have chronic myeloid leukemia," Abdul-Jabbar told CNN. He said he received the diagnosis last December.

The 62-year-old former center for the Los Angeles Lakers said aside from having to see his doctor and checking his blood levels on a regular basis, having chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) hasn't significantly affected his quality of life.

Abdul-Jabbar said he's going public now to educate people about this disease.

"I think it's possible for someone in my position to help save lives," he said.

Abdul-Jabbar is best known as the 7-foot-2 center who led the UCLA Bruins to three NCAA championships in the 1960s, then went on to win one NBA championship with the Milwaukee Bucks in 1971 and five more with the Los Angeles Lakers before retiring in 1989.

He also has dabbled in acting, notably as an airline pilot in the 1980 comedy "Airplane!"

However, raising awareness about cancer has been part of his portfolio for some time now, too.

He said cancer has been prominent in his life.

"My grandfather died from colorectal cancer, my uncle died from colorectal cancer and my father almost died from colorectal cancer," Abdul-Jabbar said.

He added that he has the gene for colorectal cancer. This led him to get involved in a colorectal cancer awareness campaign in the African-American community. He's also participated in an NBA-sponsored prostate cancer awareness campaign.

But now he's a cancer patient himself. He said he first realized something was wrong when he began having hot flashes and sweats, something he admits wasn't normal, "even for someone my age."

After seeing his physician, blood work showed he had a "white blood cell count that was sky-high." The National Cancer Institute describes CML as a "slowly progressing disease in which too many white blood cells are made in the bone marrow."

Abdul-Jabbar said when he received the diagnosis of early stage CML, he wanted to know what was possible in terms of treatment.

He said his specialist told him the cancer diagnosis did not have to be a death sentence, as long as he followed a proper treatment regimen.

Abdul-Jabbar wouldn't reveal what his prognosis is, but he did say he is managing his disease and that having CML "doesn't impact my life too significantly."

In the process of researching CML, Abdul-Jabbar says he was shocked to learn that some cancer patients do not regularly take their cancer medication. This led him to approach the pharmaceutical company Novartis about launching an educational campaign.

Abdul-Jabbar said Novartis is paying him for his travel and time, but the idea for the campaign was his.

"The message is simple: You have to have the expert advice of a specialist. You have to take your medicine and get your blood analyzed," he said.

In an effort to provide more information about this type of cancer, he is launching a Facebook page -- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Patient Advocate -- supported by the pharmaceutical company, which manufactures drugs to treat this and other types of cancer.

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), the average person's chance of getting CML is less than 1 in 500. The cancer society says CML is slightly more common in men than women, and it accounts for 10 percent to 15 percent of all leukemias or blood cancers.

The ACS estimates just over 5,000 people will be diagnosed with CML this year, and that 470 will die from it. The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society estimates the five-year survival rate for CML of 44.4 percent.

More information on CML can be found at www.cancer.org and www.leukemia-lymphoma.org.

 
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