Until early November of this year, most people had never heard of chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML), a rare form of cancer. However, when basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar stunned fans by revealing he was receiving treatment for the disease, his announcement quickly thrust CML in the spotlight. Fortunately, Abdul-Jabbar's prognosis is good. He hopes sharing his experience will raise awareness about CML.

What is chronic myelogenous leukemia?

Leukemia is cancer that develops in the blood. CML is one of four types of leukemia. CML and chronic lymphocytic leukemia develop slowly and worsen over time as leukemia cells accumulate in the blood. There are also two types of acute leukemia, which develop and worsen quickly. CML produces few symptoms early on and patients often learn they have the disease during routine blood work.

According to the National Cancer Institute, about 45,000 people will be diagnosed with leukemia in 2009. Only 5,000 will be diagnosed with CML, which typically strikes people when they are in their 60s. Women are more likely than men are to develop CML.

How does chronic myelogenous leukemia develop?

Bone marrow, the soft tissue inside our bones, produces three types of blood cells--red blood cells, platelets and white blood cells. CML is a disease of the white blood cells, which, in a bit of irony, are part of our immune system and help the body fight disease and infection. A genetic mutation causes the bone marrow to produce too many white blood cells. At first, the white blood cells can continue to perform their duty. Eventually, however, the proliferation of white blood cells crowds the normal red blood cells and platelets. This is when patients typically begin to develop symptoms.

Abdul-Jabbar started having frequent hot flashes and sweats, typical CML symptoms. CML patients may also experience fatigue, unexplained weight loss or they may just not feel well. Another telltale symptom is an enlarged spleen, which produces pain or an uncomfortable feeling on the left side of the abdomen. The spleen is part of the lymphatic system that clears worn-out red blood cells and other foreign bodies from the bloodstream.

While there's no good time to develop cancer, Abdul-Jabbar is fortunate. His diagnosis comes at a time when CML treatments effectively target cell activity directly related to the disease, producing excellent results with few side effects. As researchers continue to learn about CML, they are developing even better treatments. Like Abdul-Jabbar, most CML patients successfully manage this disease.