NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar didn’t have to look far for advice after he was diagnosed with leukemia. His middle son, Amir, 28, is a third-year medical student in San Francisco.
“He was a real great source for me, just that I can talk to him about it. Being a doctor, he understood what was happening, and gave me realistic viewpoint on it,” Abdul-Jabbar said in an interview with PEOPLE. “That means a lot to me.”
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Abdul-Jabbar, 62, was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia in December 2008 after having hot flashes and sweats. His blood work revealed that his white blood cell count was “sky high,” he said. Now taking medication for the blood disease, he is expected to have a regular life span.
“When the doctor told me I had cancer, I was scared,” said Abdul-Jabbar. “My grandfather and my uncle both died from colorectal cancer, my dad almost died from it and I have the gene for it. It’s in my family, so I thought this was something else along those lines, but it’s not.”
Even so, in 2006 leukemia had claimed the life of his friend, actor Bruno Kirby – a classmate from high school – who had suffered from a different strain of the blood disease. “He found out what he had and was dead within four weeks,” said Abdul-Jabbar. “He had a very aggressive type. I don’t have that type. The doctor told me that immediately. He told me the type of leukemia I have can be managed.”
Why He Went Public
The intensely private father of five has a message to spread: “I want to help people who are confronted with this type of situation, just to let them know it doesn’t have to be a death sentence.”
Abdul-Jabbar takes a pill that targets the abnormal protein, known as Bcr-Abl, which causes his leukemia. He also sees his doctor regularly for blood work. Two Web sites can provide further information: cmlearth.com and cmlalliance.com, as does his own Facebook page.
Since he began treatment, his symptoms have receded, and he hasn’t had to curtail his lifestyle, including being a coach with his former team, the Los Angeles Lakers.
“I’ve been living my life the whole time. That’s why a lot of people are surprised about this announcement,” he said. “They see me out here doing everything I’ve been doing all along. There haven’t been any outward signs that I have this condition.”
A fitness buff who used to do martial arts (and once battled Bruce Lee in the movie Game of Death), Abdul-Jabbar now does yoga.
“Yoga is just good for you. I couldn’t tell you specifically how it would benefit, but in terms of your general physical condition, it’s good for you,” he says. “I’m not angry about it. That’s the luck of the draw. These things happen. I just feel I’m very fortunate there’s a means to manage it.”
And when he has some doubt, he can always turn to Amir.
“It’s just made me closer to him in his official capacity as a doctor,” said Abdul-Jabbar. Plus, having a doctor in the family – Amir plans to be a children’s orthopedic surgeon – will bring more benefits in years to come.
“I tell my friends when it’s time to get our hips and knees replaced we’ll have somebody to give us good references.”