Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Says His Blood Cancer Is at a 'Microscopic Level' 10 Years After Diagnosis
The NBA legend will compete on season 26 of Dancing with the Stars
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar may still hold the record as the leading point scorer in basketball and have six NBA championship titles under his belt, but he’ll soon be celebrating another feat — 10 years as a cancer survivor.
Back in December 2008, the now 71-year-old basketball legend was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia after experiencing hot flashes and sweats. As he told PEOPLE in 2009, his blood work revealed a “sky high” white blood cell count. He was then prescribed a “targeted group of medication” for the blood disease that he still takes daily to manage it.
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“With Leukemia, you’re not technically in remission,” Abdul-Jabbar tells PEOPLE now. “It’s possible for it to reassert itself. In my case, what we say is I’ve managed it down to a microscopic level. There are no bad white blood cells. and that’s how we discuss the type of management that I do, which enables me to say that I’m healthy.”
“I feel fine, and I’m very fortunate to benefit from the medical research that enable the targeted drugs to deal with the types of leukemia that I possess,” he says. “I’m very happy to be here and very happy to be participating.”
“I try to enjoy my life,” he continues. “I’m just trying to hang on here, and every day is blessing.”
On DWTS, Abdul-Jabbar is partnered with Lindsay Arnold, who won last season with Jordan Fisher, and says that even though he has “old bones,” he has “young feet.”
“It started out that I had to get my feet in shape,” he says. “I haven’t worked out like that ever. Basketball practice, you do it on your feet just like dance practice — it’s a little bit different, but you’re stretching your feet the same. It took me a couple of days to get used to that, and now it seems to be going very well. Lindsay had my shoes altered a little bit, they stretched them for me. They were a little more broken in, and now I’m doing fine.”
Abdul-Jabbar says the rehearsal process has been “very humbling” for him but that he’s “making progress.”
“It looks so simple and easily done, but when you’re trying to coordinate two people, it takes a while for both of them to learn each other’s coordinating moves and how to proceed through the sequence of things,” he says. “All of the dances [I’ve seen] throughout my life make it look so thoughtless and easy, and I can see how much work it is to pull it off — wow.”
Though Abdul-Jabbar stands at a towering 7’2″ compared to Arnold’s 5’6″, he says they’ve worked around the height difference by choosing a routine that doesn’t emphasize the discrepancy. “That’s the whole trick to this at this point,” he says.
When it comes to working out and maintaining a healthy lifestyle, Abdul-Jabbar says it’s all about covering the basics — sleeping, eating well and hitting the gym.
“[I] make sure that I put time in the gym to good use,” he says. “That involves being prepared to work out and being healthy. So far, so good.”
From broken toes to pulled muscles and back spasms, past seasons of DWTS have seen it all when it comes to dancing related injuries. But Abdul-Jabbar says that since he’s able to rest more, he’s not nervous about the injuries — yet.
“I’m fortunate that I don’t have to travel,” he says. “When I first agreed to do this, I was traveling a lot, so the initial get ready period to start training was kind of hectic because I had a whole lot of obligations to fulfill. But I got those done. I’m able to focus, and I’m at home.”
Among the athletes joining Abdul-Jabbar on DWTS are former Olympic ice skaters Tonya Harding, Adam Rippon and Mirai Nagasu; Olympic snowboarder Jamie Anderson and luger Chris Mazdzer; Notre Dame’s national championship hero Arike Ogunbowale; former pro softball player Jennie Finch Daigle; retired professional baseball outfielder Johnny Damon; and Washington Redskins’ cornerback Josh Norman.
After retiring from basketball in 1989, Abdul-Jabbar has become an author and advocate for social justice issues; he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2016.
Most recently, he spoke out about the stereotypes of male athletes amid the scandal involving Tristan Thompson, who has been accused of cheating on the mother of his newborn daughter and girlfriend Khloé Kardashian.
In an essay for Cosmopolitan, he called out “onlookers” for saying Kardashian must have known Thompson’s infidelity was coming simply because he is an “athlete.”
“The implication is that such sleazy behavior should be expected because, after all, he plays professional sports for a living,” he wrote. “This is a pervasive opinion people have of pro athletes—and not even the worst one. But that doesn’t make it true or acceptable.”
Abdul-Jabbar says he felt the need to speak out because “stereotypes do not benefit anybody.”
“We’re talking about people’s lives and children’s lives,” he continues. “People should deal with it with that in mind.”
Season 26 of Dancing with the Stars premieres April 30 (8 p.m. ET) on ABC.