Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Kelly knows pain. After spending 11 seasons under center for the Buffalo Bills, the 56-year-old has taken his fair share of hits, but nothing would compare to the pain he felt in his head before he was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma in his upper jaw.
“I probably had about four or five root canals done because I was having major pain in my mouth and I just thought it was toothaches,” Kelly told Fox News. “After they did a couple biopsies and the pain in my head was getting really bad, and all of a sudden I couldn’t handle the pain anymore – that’s when they diagnosed me.”
Kelly is in remission today, but it would take a relapse, more than 35 radiation treatments, chemotherapy and surgery to get there. Kelly believes early detection may have led him down a different path, and has partnered with Merck, Head and Neck Cancer Alliance (HNCA), Support for People with Oral Head and Neck Cancer (SPOHNC), and Savor Health, a leading nutritional concierge service for cancer patients, for the Your Cancer Game Plan campaign to encourage others to get aches or pains checked out.
“Especially with men, there are so many guys that are stubborn and say ‘Oh I’ll be fine,’ and you keep putting it off and putting it off,” Kelly said. “If you feel that there is something that is not right, get it checked. I mean, what’s it going to hurt to get it checked? It’s either yes or no.”
After a diagnosis, Kelly’s campaign provides patients with tips on nutrition, the importance of staying positive, tips on communication and additional resources for families. He said the concept of providing a place for patients and families to turn resonates with him not only for what he experienced with his cancer diagnosis, but also for what he and his wife went through when their son, Hunter, was born.
Hunter was born with Krabbe Disease, an inherited degenerative disorder of the central and peripheral nervous system. He died in 2005 at age 8, and the family continues to work with the Hunter’s Hope Foundation to raise money for neurological disease-related research. Kelly said one of the most difficult moments of his cancer battle was having to tell his family about his diagnosis, especially because of the difficult loss of Hunter. When he was approached by Merck, he jumped at the chance to bring other families comfort and information that his own would have benefitted from.
“This was a no-brainer for me because I knew when my son was born, that we had nowhere to turn, nobody to talk to, nobody knew anything about it,” Kelly said. “And then when I was diagnosed with cancer, I had never heard of squamous cell carcinoma, you heard of cancer before, but not the type I had.”
Each year, more than 60,000 new cases of head and neck cancer are diagnosed in the U.S., often leaving patients with difficulties in speaking, eating, vision, ability to swallow and possibly appearance. During his second bout with cancer in 2014, Kelly dropped 70 pounds and required a feeding tube to receive proper nutrients. Before his diagnosis, Kelly said he never gave his diet the attention it needed but was amazed at how changes at home can parallel with improved health. Part of the campaign’s goals is to drive this message home to others. Patients can find a nutritional guide and helpful recipes on the campaign’s website. There are also tips on how to boost self-esteem and stay positive during treatments, with Kelly weighing in on every step.
“Because I’m a patient I’ve been there, done that before,” Kelly said. “That’s why I teamed up with them and it’s something that, as I’ve stated before, I wish we had a long time ago.”