Oral Cancer Survivor

Kelly Tough and Cancer Free

Record-setting quarterback Jim Kelly earned a reputation for being “Kelly Tough” during his 11-year career with the Buffalo Bills. As it turns out, that reputation applies on and off the field, and not just to Jim. The Kelly family drew on its tremendous collective strength and faith to support Jim as he took down the hardest-hitting competitor he’s ever faced: squamous cell carcinoma of the jaw.

Football Hall of Famer Jim Kelly’s battle with cancer began in 2013 with a simple toothache.

“My gums were receding, so my dentist performed a root canal. Having a root canal is no fun, but you usually end up feeling better when it’s all over. I didn’t, so he did another one. My teeth still hurt, so he suggested pulling my front teeth. He also suggested a biopsy. The biopsy results came back negative, which, of course, I thought was a great sign. But I started having headaches and pain in my upper jaw. I told my brother there had to be something wrong. I went for a second opinion and had another biopsy. And thank goodness I did.”

Hearing he had squamous cell carcinoma of the jaw was devastating.

“I left the doctor’s office, got into my car and drove for a bit. Then,” he admitted, “I pulled over, and I started crying. The tears weren’t for me. I just didn’t know how I’d tell my wife and my daughters that after all we’d been through with Hunter, they might lose me, too.”

The Kelly family already had endured a lot of heartache. Jim and Jill’s son, Hunter, was diagnosed with leukodystrophy, a degenerative disease of the myelin in the brain, shortly after his birth in 1997. Eight years later, Hunter passed away from the disease.

Fortunately for Jim, he’s not the only one in the family that’s ‘Kelly Tough.’ Jill, daughters Erin and Camryn, and their family and friends provided the support Jim needed to face what was next: surgery to remove part of the 53-year-old’s jaw.

A doctor close to home was known as one of the best for this type of cancer. He removed the left side of Jim’s upper jaw, including all of the teeth on the left side of his mouth and several in front. Tissue from his left leg was used to replace the tissue removed from his mouth, and he was fitted with a prosthesis that includes his new front teeth.

“There wasn’t a lot of information out there for us, but my doctor did a good job of educating us about this type of cancer and what to expect.”

After surgery, Jim experienced changes in his ability to speak and eat, and he temporarily lost his taste buds. The necessary soft food diet and the constant pain contributed to a 14-pound weight loss, but less than a month later, Jim was deemed cancer-free. His doctor warned him that recurrence was a possibility, so he kept a close eye on his health.

Nearly a year later, the headaches and the cancer returned, and the prognosis was not good. The cancer was headed toward Jim’s brain. Because the cancer was dangerously close to his carotid artery, surgery wasn’t an option. His doctor recommended several weeks of aggressive chemotherapy and radiation, and he gave Jim a dismal 10 percent chance of living.

“I definitely felt I was being tested. I thought, ‘Lord, really? I’ve had four Super Bowl losses, my son was diagnosed with an illness, my son died from that illness, I’ve had two plates and 10 screws in my back, a double hernia surgery, and one plate and six screws in my neck, had cancer, and now I have cancer again?’

“I’d always lived my life by the four Fs: faith, family, friends and fans, and I believed I was still around because of them. But, Jill felt we needed to share what was happening on social media to extend those things and get as much prayer coming my way as possible. I believed in the power of prayer but, honestly, I wasn’t happy about it. I’m a private person. As an athlete, so much of your life is in the public eye already, and I wanted to keep this at home. Jill convinced me, and the family took to social media with my story. The response was amazing.”

Jim credits a big part of his survival to that support system.

“I heard from people all over the world. That was a humbling experience. And my hospital room was always filled with family and friends. Just like she was with Hunter, Jill was a trooper. Not once did she, Erin or Camryn ever enter my hospital room with frowns on their faces. I don’t know what they did when they left the room. I’m sure they were emotional, but they never broke down in front of me. It made me realize how important it is to surround yourself with caregivers, family and friends who have a positive attitude.”

After five months, Jim was once again declared cancer free. He’s lost about 70 pounds since treatment, and it’s taken a couple of years to put some of it back on.

“I’m at my playing weight now, not where I was before I got sick. But,” he laughed, “I’m not sure I want to be there again. I think I was getting a little husky.”

Jim still deals with the side effects of cancer. A permanent side effect, and one of the worst, according to Jim, is the lack of saliva.

“As a result of the surgery, I can no longer produce saliva, and it’s especially bad at night. The dry mouth used to wake me up every 45 minutes or so, and I was just miserable. One day at a golf tournament, a woman approached me and told me her husband had the same type of cancer I did. I asked her if he had the same difficulties with saliva that I did, and she said he did. The next day, she brought me the over-the-counter mints that gave him relief at night, and it was like a miracle. I’ve had a tough time finding them, so my pharmacy orders them for me. They are the best things, and I’ve told other people about them. More people need to know about things like this.”

Jim also still has jaw pain and knows he may always have it. But for someone who was given a 10 percent chance to live, he thinks it’s a pretty small price to pay.

This experience opened another door for Jim as an educational and motivational speaker.

“I know now that I was tested for a reason. I’ve lived a life most people can only dream about. I’m still here so I can share what I’ve learned about never giving up hope in spite of enormous challenges. I speak all over the world to all kinds of audiences at schools, businesses and cancer centers.

“There is a need for information about head and neck cancer, just like there was for leukodystrophy. People need to see it and hear about it. I also encourage people to be difference makers. I am blessed to have the support system I do, but not everyone has that. We all have the capability to make someone’s day better. It doesn’t have to be a sick person. It can be your mom or dad or grandparent. You can make their day.

“I end every one of my presentations with a statement that I feel so strongly about: ‘Make a difference today for someone who is fighting for their tomorrow."