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Dr. Manny: Jim Kelly’s toughest game: Fighting oral cancer

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Former Buffalo Bills player Jim Kelly (R) at his acceptance into the NFL Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio in 2009. Kelly is now battling a second recurrence of oral cancer. (REUTERS/Ron Kuntz)

Jim Kelly, the Hall of Fame quarterback who played for the Buffalo Bills until 1996, is one of the greatest football players that I have ever seen. During his football career, I followed him closely and was always in awe of his athletic abilities, his leadership qualities and his love of family.

Unfortunately, Jim Kelly is currently battling a second recurrence of oral cancer and has been scheduled to undergo surgery in an attempt to control the disease. His wife, Jill, told the Associated Press that her 54-year-old husband’s cancer is aggressive and beginning to spread.

I’ve been following Jim Kelly’s health struggles and have been thinking about him, praying that he gets better. It is easy to think of some humans as immortal – especially when you’re looking at an individual as physically fit as Jim Kelly. But we tend to forget that sometimes nature has a unique plan for all of us.

However, Jim Kelly’s struggles can serve as a reminder for us all to be vigilant about our health. Jim Kelly is suffering from oral cancer, which doesn’t get the attention that it deserves, despite the fact that 42,000 new cases will be diagnosed in 2014, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Oral cancers are any cancers occurring in the oral cavity, which starts in your throat and extends all the way to your lips. The sad part about this disease is that oral cancers are typically not identified early, which severely reduces survival rates.

The early signs of oral cancer are often missed because lesions are small, painless and often not irritating – especially in tongue cancers or cancers of the gums. But, as the cancer grows, these lesions become ulcerated, causing burning and severe tenderness in the affected areas. Because of the vascular nature of the mouth and throat, many of these cancers tend to metastasize, making matters much worse.

Some risk factors for oral cancer include tobacco use, excessive alcohol consumption and exposure to some strains of the humanpapilloma virus (HPV). HPV has also been linked to cervical cancers in women.

One very important fact to know about oral cancer is that diagnoses of the disease have increased every year for the past five years, according to The Oral Cancer Foundation. That is why it’s so important for people to schedule regular appointments with their dentist – and to make sure they get examined for signs of oral cancer.  

If you catch oral cancers early, the survival rate can be over 80 percent. Treatments for oral cancer often include surgery, in addition to radiation and chemotherapy.  Yet, once the tumor has metastasized, it can be very challenging for doctors to control or remove it.

Please join me in wishing Jim Kelly all our love and support, and keep his family in our hearts.

Dr. Manny Alvarez serves as Fox News Channel's Senior Managing Editor for Health News. Prior to this position, Alvarez was a FNC medical contributor.
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