on June 24, 2013 - 8:20 PM
, updated June 24, 2013 at 11:25 PM
Jim Kelly is cancer-free.
The Buffalo Bills’ Hall of Fame quarterback made that uplifting announcement Monday morning as his 26th annual football camp got underway inside the team’s fieldhouse.
Kelly learned last week he won’t have to go through radiation treatment or chemotherapy following surgery on June 7 to remove cancer in his upper jawbone.
“Which to me, is a blessing because what I’ve been told about all the stuff that they did in surgery, that if I had to do radiation or chemo, it would put me way back,” said the 53-year-old Kelly, whose speech was perhaps a little slower than usual, but otherwise clear and strong in making his first public appearance since the surgery.
Kelly said he was experiencing some expected soreness in his jaw, but otherwise his recovery is right on track.
“Big-time relief,” he said. “Trust me, prayers definitely had a big part in it, there’s no doubt. Not just with my family, but all across the country. And I’ve received so many letters and emails from people that have had similar circumstances as I did, and some of them were not very good, and some of them were very good.
“So you’re encouraged on one hand, and then discouraged on the other, but to find out where they’ve been, and the prognosis of where I’m going, I’m very excited. I’m happy. Never thought I’d be saying the word cancer … but it’s part of what has happened to me in the ups and downs of life.”
One of the most difficult parts of his diagnosis, Kelly said, was telling his daughters, Erin and Camryn.
“It’s an emotional ride,” he said. “My kids are used to hearing daddy say, ‘Don’t worry I’ll be fine.’ Sometimes you start wondering if they believe me now, because I keep saying, ‘Oh, I’ll be fine’ and something else pops up. But they’re strong, they’re Kellys and they understand the part of being Kelly tough.”
The support they’ve received from the community has overwhelmed the Kelly family.
“I just want to thank personally everybody from this area. This community has rallied around me when I played for the Bills, when my son Hunter was diagnosed, and of course, my latest setback with cancer,” he said.
“There’s not enough words to describe the feeling in my heart, and in my family’s heart, how much it means to me that people took the time out to email me, write me hundreds and hundreds of letters. The prayers that have been answered because of the things I don’t have to do now.”
There was little doubt Kelly would be in front of campers Monday. He scheduled his surgery for June 7 so that he could take part in his annual golf tournament – where he made the announcement June 3 – and have enough time to recover for his camp.
“I never thought it would last this long, but as years went on, and the fun that I had, I saw how much it really helps,” he said.
Kelly’s “chalk talk” at camp has always been more about life than football, and his recent trial has given him another topic: perseverance.
“We’re all going to go through things in our lives,” he said. “It’s what you do about it that counts. Don’t feel sorry for yourself. How do you turn something bad into something good? I’ve always stressed that to my kids.”
Kelly will meet with his doctors in about a month and a half to have a CT scan and more blood work done, then have subsequent checkups every two months.
“Just like anything, it could come back,” he said. “But right now, so far, so good.”
During surgery, Kelly had most of the left side of his jaw removed, along with several teeth on the left side of his mouth.
Restricted from eating solid foods, he’s lost 14 pounds, but joked, “I could think of other ways to lose weight other than going through this.
“I need to lose about 10 or 15 more. We’re getting there.”
A skin graft was also performed, with tissue from Kelly’s left leg used in his mouth. Kelly will go back for a check-up Wednesday to make sure the graft is still taking. Even after undergoing recent surgeries on his back and neck, as well as to correct a hernia, Kelly said his most recent surgery has been the most painful he’s ever endured.
“It’s very, very sore, but it just takes time,” he said. “When you have a knee surgery or a shoulder surgery, it’s sore for a small period of time, you rehab it and everything’s good. You just take your time. This is just constant pain for now, but … it’s a small price you’ve got to pay for where I’m going to be later on down the road.”
Kelly said doctors have not given him a cause of the cancer, medically known as squamous cell carcinoma. He said he’s never been a smoker or used chewing tobacco.
“Luck of the draw. Bad luck. I don’t know what you want to call it,” he said. “I know that growing up we didn’t have the best dental care. I mean, my dad worked in steel mills and didn’t have much. I think the only time we ever went to the dentist as kids is when we had a toothache and we had to get it pulled. That was pretty much it.”
One of the things Kelly has learned since his diagnosis is that the human body contains cancer cells, “but it’s just something that triggers it to have to come out.”
“Unfortunately something triggered mine, but the good thing about it is, it’s out,” he said. “I got it taken care of and hopefully I’m cancer free for the rest of my life.”