Jim Kelly’s Battle Spotlights Oral Cancer

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March 6, 2018

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Jim Kelly, the NFL Hall of Fame quarterback and former University of Miami football standout, announced Thursday that he will once again undergo treatment for oral cancer after recent testing indicated the cancer has returned.

Mr. Kelly, 58, was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma in his upper jaw in June 2013. At that time, doctors at Erie County Medical Center in Buffalo, N.Y., removed part of his upper jaw, part of the roof of his mouth and numerous teeth. He got a prosthesis to replace the teeth and bone that was removed during his surgery. Mr. Kelly, who graduated from UM in 1983, played for 11 seasons with the Buffalo Bills, leading the team to four Super Bowls.

Cancers of the oral cavity may involve bone, teeth, muscle, nerves, blood vessels, saliva glands and the inside lining of the lips and cheeks. The most common cancer of the oral cavity is squamous cell carcinoma, and it arises from the lining of the inside the mouth, the nose and the throat, according to the National Cancer Institute.

‘This can Happen to Anyone at Any Age’
“There’s a small percentage who have never smoked or drank alcohol who get cancer of the oral cavity,” says Geoffrey Young, M.D., Ph.D., FACS, chief of head and neck surgery at Miami Cancer Institute, who treats patients diagnosed with oral cancer but was not involved in Mr. Kelly’s case. “This can happen to anyone at any age so it’s always a good idea to get a yearly oral cancer screening from your dentist or primary care physician. Prevention is always better.”

Tobacco use and excessive alcohol are the main risk factors for this type of oral cancer. Mr. Kelly has said he never smoked cigarettes or chewed tobacco but smoked cigars occasionally. A small percentage of people (under 7 percent) get oral cancers from no identified cause, says the Oral Cancer Foundation. It is believed that these are likely related to some genetic predisposition, the Foundation says.

Dentists usually screen patients for oral cancer before performing regular cleanings or other procedures.  A primary care physician can also examine the oral cavity for sores or unusual growths. Before his initial diagnosis in 2013, Mr. Kelly said he suffered from pain in his jaw.

“If you have any sore or growth in the mouth that doesn’t heal within 30 days, then you should get it checked out by your dentist or primary care doctor,” Dr. Young said. “Initially, these sores may not even be painful.”

Mr. Kelly’s cancer has returned for the second time. Nine months after his first surgery in March 2014, Mr. Kelly announced the cancer had returned and aggressively spread to his brain, sinus cavity and adjacent tissues. He underwent months of treatment — including chemotherapy — that removed the cancerous cells. Before Thursday’s announcement, he had been believed to be free of cancer since September 2014. Since then, Mr. Kelly has taken part in Oral, Head & Neck Cancer Awareness campaigns, urging Americans to get screened.

Oral cancer is the largest group of the cancers that fall under the head and neck cancer category. Approximately 51,500 people in the U.S. will be newly diagnosed with oral cancer in 2018, projects the Oral Cancer Foundation. The foundation estimates that almost 10,000 people die from oral cancers every year, although not all of these cases are specifically cancers of the oral cavity.

The oral cavity includes the lips, the inside lining of the lips and cheeks (buccal mucosa), the teeth, the gums, the front two-thirds of the tongue, the floor of the mouth below the tongue and the bony roof of the mouth (hard palate). Oropharyngeal cancer starts in the oropharynx, which is the part of the throat just behind the mouth.

The human papillomavirus (HPV) has emerged in recent years as a possible leading cause of oropharyngeal (tonsil and base of tongue) cancers, particularly in non-smokers and younger age groups. Over half of tonsil and base of tongue cancers are linked to HPV. The U.S. Centers for Disease and Prevention (CDC) says that up to 70 percent of oropharyngeal cancers may be associated with HPV.

In a statement Thursday announcing that his cancer had returned, Mr. Kelly stated: “The oral cancer we hoped would be gone forever has returned. Although I was shocked and deeply saddened to receive this news, I know that God is with me. I continuously talk about the four F’s: Faith, Family, Friends and Fans. With all of you by my side, we will fight and win this battle together. Staying ‘Kelly Tough’ and trusting God will carry us through this difficult time.”

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