“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.
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.
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