Patient Profile: NBA Icon Discusses His Battle With Cancer

Specialty Pharmacy Times, May/June 2017, Volume 8, Issue 3

Legendary NBA star Kareem-Abdul Jabbar faced his toughest battle after being diagnosed with Philadelphia chromosome-positive chronic myeloid leukemia.

NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar thought he had been sentenced to death.

He was a virtually unstoppable force, known across the globe for his signature skyhook. Abdul-Jabbar retired from a 20-year career in 1989 as the all-time leading scorer in NBA history with 38,387 points and 6 MVP awards. He was used to being in control on the court, from his storied time at the University of California-Los Angeles under legendary coach John Wooden, through his pro career with the Milwaukee Bucks and the “Showtime” Los Angeles Lakers, where he starred alongside Earvin “Magic” Johnson.

The active and health-conscious Abdul-Jabbar was among the first big-time athletes to take up yoga, and attributed it as one of the reasons he was able to play ball for so long. But while none of his opponents in basketball could slow down the iconic big man, Abdul-Jabbar was left powerless when the hot flashes and sweats he was experiencing foretold a cancer diagnosis.

Despite his best efforts to stay healthy, in December 2008, Abdul-Jabbar received the devastating news that he had Philadelphia chromosome-positive chronic myeloid leukemia (Ph+ CML).

“Hearing the word leukemia, to me at the time, was like a death sentence,” Abdul-Jabbar said in an interview with Specialty Pharmacy Times®. “I immediately thought of my good friend, actor Bruno Kirby, who died in 2006 at age 57 from a different form of leukemia. Then, my son Amir—–a medical student at the time––told me that there are many types of leukemia, and that I needed to find out exactly what was going on before I got too scared.”

Prior to his diagnosis, Abdul-Jabbar was unfamiliar with CML. But he was relieved to learn that his specific disease was slow-progressing, and can be successfully managed with treatment.

“I have to take my medication, keep my scheduled doctor appointments, and get my blood tested regularly,” Abdul-Jabbar said.

After diagnosis, Abdul-Jabber started on treatment with imatinib mesylate (Gleevec) tablets. However, after routine monitoring, his physicians said that the medication was not helping him achieve his treatment goals of sustained molecular response. So, Abdul-Jabbar had to start over in formulating a new strategy to beat his toughest opponent.

“Eventually, after considering the options, my doctor and I determined a new plan of action,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “We decided to switch to nilotinib (Tasigna) capsules.”

While taking imatinib mesylate, Abdul-Jabbar experienced fatigue and hand cramps. Since switching to nilotinib, however, he said he does not experience any noticeable adverse events. Although Abdul-Jabbar had to make some changes, he was still able to maintain a normal lifestyle.

“I’m very lucky that I am able to continue living a full and active life,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “Yes, I’ve had to make some changes—–now I see my doctor for regular appointments, take my medication regularly, get regular PCR blood tests to monitor my response to treatment, but this is what I have to do.”

Being a celebrity comes with many perks, but the constant eye of the media places significant stress on an individual. However, Abdul-Jabbar viewed this burden as an opportunity to spread education and awareness about Ph+ CML, so he revealed his illness to The Associated Press in November 2009.

“Finding out I had CML was life-changing,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “Often, when people hear the word cancer or leukemia they are scared, both because they don’t know a lot about the disease and they don’t know what is going to happen to them. Some immediately think it’s a death sentence. I know these feelings first-hand, because that’s what I thought. I wanted to help others not feel so powerless against their disease, because they are not alone in their fight. CML is a rare cancer and my goal is to raise awareness about the disease, and encourage others living with CML to actively manage their own health.

“As a public figure, I knew that people would know about my diagnosis, and I really felt that if I could help others by using my platform, then I could turn my story into something inspiring for others.”

Abdul-Jabbar partnered with Novartis Oncology in 2009 to encourage patients with Ph+ CML to actively take control of their disease by taking the necessary steps to manage it.

“Novartis is one of the cutting-edge companies researching this disease and I’m excited to be partnering with them to help inspire fellow patients with Ph+ CML to work closely with their doctors, educate themselves, and take steps to actively manage their disease for the best possible outcomes,” he said.

Battling a disease such as cancer can have a negative impact on a patient’s mental health and overall well-being, adding stress to family members. Abdul-Jabbar stayed positive by leaning on the love and support of his family.

“As an athlete, I have always been very active, and I continued to stay active,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “I love to read and write and that didn’t really change, and the support of my family and friends has always been my true motivation. I think my diagnosis really brought our family closer. I have 5 children and a close network of extended family, and everyone has been truly supportive. Last year, I had the joy of welcoming my first grandchild, so nothing can beat that.”

In February 2011, Abdul-Jabbar announced to the world that he was in remission from the deadly disease.

“I am grateful every day for my health,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “I thank all those in the medical community for the tireless work they do day in and day out to find treatments for diseases like mine. Being diagnosed with cancer was pretty scary for me. I am doing well, but certainly know now how each day is truly a gift.”

Abdul-Jabbar advises patients newly diagnosed with Ph+ CML to listen to their physicians and make sure they are getting regular blood tests to measure the efficacy of their treatments.

“I speak to patients all the time, and often hear that the most difficult thing they face is making sure to take their medications as directed,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “I once had a person ask me if he missed 10 days while on vacation could he take all his pills at once. That’s just crazy! This is not jazz music and you can’t just improvise. You need to listen to your doctor’s instructions and truly follow them.”