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How is chronic myeloid leukemia treated?

November 10, 2009 12:00:00 AM PST
Basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is speaking out about his leukemia. He says he'd like to follow in the footsteps of Magic Johnson. He wants to do for leukemia what Magic did for HIV -- create awareness. A year after being diagnosed with an uncommon form of leukemia, the Hall of Fame center is coming forward about dealing with chronic myelogenous leukemia or CML.

"My whole thing in coming public with this is to let people know who have to face these circumstances that they can prevail," said Abdul-Jabbar. "They can continue to live a meaningful life."

CML is a cancer of the white blood cells. A genetic mutation that continues to replicate causes an unregulated growth of the white blood cells.

Although Abdul-Jabbar says he has experienced hot flashes, City of Hope's Dr. Vinod Pullerkat says more common symptoms include fatigue and weight loss.

"Among the leukemias it's about 15 percent of all leukemias," said Dr. Pullerkat.

CML used to be treated aggressively like other leukemias, using chemotherapy and bone marrow transplants. But in the last decade drugs have revolutionized the way doctors treat CML.

"The majority of patients get started on Gleevec, which is the first line drug for this disease," said Dr. Pullerkat.

Dr. Pullerkat says Gleevec and two other drugs, Sprycel and Tesigna, are all designed to shutdown the chromosomal defect causing CML. The drug manages the condition much like other chronic diseases.

"Compliance with the treatment is important. You have to take the pill everyday for the rest of your life," said Dr. Pullerkat.

The drug company Novartis manufactures two of the CML drugs. Abdul-Jabbar is a paid spokesperson for Novartis, and says he hopes others will benefit from his story.

"I'm amazed that people who are diagnosed with CML are not visiting their doctor regularly or taking their medicine on time," said Abdul-Jabbar. "It is absolutely essential if you're going to manage this disease."

Doctors say side effects of CML drugs are very minimal. People with CML may not have any symptoms when they are diagnosed, it could be detected in a blood test that's part of a regular checkup.

CML symptoms tend to develop gradually and many -- like weight loss, night sweats, and fatigue -- are very common to other illnesses as well.


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