Kareem Abdul-Jabbar spoke for all of us when he told ESPN of his reaction to learning he has cancer.
“It was scary,” he said. “That’s the only word you can use when you hear that that word applies to you.”
Abdul-Jabbar is no wuss. He’s a tough guy and a martial arts devotee who knows about facing down whatever life throws at you without flinching. So it shouldn’t be surprising that he greeted the news with courage.
Nor is it surprising that most of us received the news with shock and concern. We care about this man who performed with such greatness for so many years and has lived with such dignity. We don’t want anyone to get cancer, and we particularly don’t want our heroes to get it.
And so, for a brief moment, we were forcibly made aware again of this heartless disease that doesn’t care if you have more courage than Leonidas or less courage than a neurotic bunny. For a moment, we realized that if this disease can attack one of the greatest athletes who ever lived, it can attack us.
Don’t be lulled by what you read next, that Abdul-Jabbar’s brand of cancer — chronic myeloid leukemia — is one that can be managed. He said his doctor told him, "You have a very good chance to live your life out and not have to make any drastic changes to your lifestyle.”
That sounds terrific, and if you’re the one with cancer, believe me, it’s the best thing you can hear. But notice that the doctor didn’t offer any guarantees. He said “a very good chance” of a long and normal life, which means there is also a very bad chance of short and abnormal one.
Abdul-Jabbar said he revealed that he has cancer to help raise awareness and money to combat the disease. Mission accomplished on the first front. On the second, keep sending those donations to cancer research, folks. There’s still far too much we don’t know about this killer.
Cancer is a nasty, nasty disease, unlike anything else that can come out of nowhere and knock down anybody without regard for ethnic origin, religious beliefs, gender or sexual orientation. We know some things that can cause it, but many cancers have no explanation. You’re cruising along in life, doing everything right, then one day you realize you’ve been feeling puckish for a while or you have a rash that won’t go away. The next thing you know, someone in a white coat is telling you that you have cancer.
Abdul-Jabbar is lucky in that he doesn’t have pancreatic or brain cancer, but no one who gets cancer is lucky. Even if you are “cured,” you lose something. And being cured is a relative thing, because you’re never really cured of this thing. It can always come back.
It comes in a bewildering variety. Abdul-Jabbar mentioned that a close friend, actor Bruno Kirby, died in 2006 of leukemia. When Kareem heard his doctor say he had leukemia, he understandably thought he didn’t have long for this world. But Kirby’s leukemia laughed at the best treatment while Abdul-Jabbar’s is usually treatable relatively easily with a drug made by Novartis, a company that is one of the hall-of-famer’s sponsors. That actually is lucky, because from what I read, the medicine can run more than $30,000 a year.
This is something else I hope he uses his pulpit to talk about. If you have health insurance — or a sponsor who makes the medication — you don’t have to worry about paying for the medication that will keep you alive and living a mostly normal life. If you don’t have insurance, and also have lost your job or are underemployed, well, you do the math. Nobody’s going to give you that medicine.
So it would be nice if he’d also throw an elbow in the ribs of a few members of Congress and tell them to make health care affordable and mandatory for everyone, and not just those lucky enough to have a job that offers access to insurance. Because it doesn’t matter how young or how healthy or how careful you are, cancer can find you, and if you can’t pay for treatment, you’re dead.
And a mere $30,000 a year is relative peanuts compared to what it costs to treat other cancers. I’ve been undergoing treatment for lymphoma for the past five months and will continue in treatment until April. I’ve had seven shots that cost nearly $25,000 total. I had one prescription for two weeks of medication that ran $20,000. Soon, I’ll be going into the hospital for three weeks of treatment at a cost that I’m guessing will run a couple hundred thousand dollars. My prognosis is good, but there are no guarantees.
Kareem is in the same situation: good prognosis, no guarantees. Try to remember that when you think about his story or that of anyone with the disease. There’s no “good” cancer to get. It can strike anyone at any time It’s the no-good, low-down, rotten s.o.b. of diseases.
Kareem provided you with countless thrills during his great college and pro careers. Now’s your chance to pay him back.
Donate something to fight cancer. It doesn’t have to be a lot. And if you can’t afford a donation, go to your local hospital or blood bank and donate blood. We need that, too. But do something, because the life you save may be your own.