Abdul-Jabbar takes on new opponent

By JeffGraveline

In 2009 more than 5,050 people will be diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia, a disease that affects the blood-producing cells in the bone marrow. As the disease progresses, the body produces more white blood cells than needed. Recently, chronic myeloid leukemia made headlines as NBA legend and all-time scoring leader Kareem Abdul-Jabbar announced that he has been fighting the disease since December 2008.

“Last year, I was diagnosed with Philadelphia chromosome-positive chronic myeloid leukemia (Ph+ CML), which is a deadly type of blood cancer,” Abdul-Jabbar posted on his Facebook account.  “By working closely with my doctor, I was diagnosed early and immediately prescribed an FDA-approved treatment targeting the cause of my disease, the abnormal protein called Bcr-Abl. I am happy to say that I am responding well to treatment and looking forward to the future.”

In the United States, 22,475 people are currently fighting chronic myeloid leukemia, according to the Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results Program from the National Cancer Institute in 2009. The disease mostly affects adults in the U.S., but has been found in children as well.

“CML is a mild proliferative disease. A lot of people call it a cancer and I think one has to be very careful with the use of the word cancer,” said Dr. Gary Schiller, a professor in the Department of Medicine, division of Hematology/Oncology, at the University of California at Los Angeles. “Although there are certain features that make it like a cancer, there are other features that make it distinctly different.”

While the cause of chronic myeloid leukemia is unknown, the way the disease works in the body is well documented by scientists and researchers, said Dr. Schiller. Dr. Lucy Godley, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Chicago, said that chronic myeloid leukemia affects the chromosomes that make up the human body.

“We do know that virtually all patients [that have CML] have a change in their chromosomes where chromosome 9 is attached to chromosome 22,” said Dr. Godley. “There’s a switch, a break [on chromosomes 9 and 22] and material gets exchanged between those chromosomes.”

There are three stages of chronic myeloid leukemia, according to The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Web site. The first is the chronic phase, when the disease is most often found. The chronic phase has symptoms that are milder and patients can return to normal activates once they begin treatment.

The second phase, the accelerated phase, happens when the white blood cell count may go up or down or the platelet count in a patient may drop. A patient’s spleen may swell or their blast cells, an immature forming blood cell, may increase. This can cause a patient to feel ill or tired said Dr. Godley.

The third phase, the blast crisis phase, is the most aggressive stage of the disease, said Dr. Godley. The disease looks most like an acute leukemia and is the most life- threatening stage.

Treatment for chronic myeloid leukemia has vastly grown in recent years, with advancements in research and drug technology, said Dr. Schiller. Drug treatment is often viewed as the most viable option for chronic myeloid leukemia patients, while bone marrow transplants are used only when something is unusual about the disease.

“Most patients with CML are treated with Imatinib,” said Dr. Schiller. “More than 85 percent of [patients] achieve a dramatic reduction in the size of the malignant clone or the family [of cancerous cells]. So that at diagnoses, 100 percent of the cells of the bone marrow are members of the [cancerous] family.  After therapy, 12, 18, 24 months, the size of the [cancer] clone is reduced, often, to 1 in 1,000, 1 in 100,000 cells, 1 in a million cells.”

For those diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia, there is more than just treatment concerns to worry about, said Anita Welborn, senior director of patient services programs for The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Medical costs, support and understanding the disease are three of the main things that The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society work to help patients with, said Welborn.

“We hear it all the time, patients take our books and they go to their doctor’s office and they go, ‘Tell me about this and tell me how this applies to me,’” said Welborn.

With The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society helping patients and the Abdul-Jabbar coming to the forefront of the disease, Welborn explained that people should be aware of not only chronic myeloid leukemia, but also all life threatening diseases.

“The awareness is so important because it allows us to truly push efforts to focus on disease treatment, focus on research, focus on clinical trials,” said Welborn. “All of the things that have brought us to this point, where patients are now able to live with a number of our diseases with a quality of life that didn’t exists 20 to 30 years ago.”

For more information about CML, visit www.Leukemia-Lymphoma.org or call 1-800-955-4572 to reach The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.