Kelly to Encourage AGD2023 Attendees to ‘Never Give Up’

  • by AGD Staff
  • May 30, 2023
Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly has seen his share of triumphs and tragedies. Kelly played two seasons with the Houston Gamblers in the United States Football League before the league folded, then went on to play 11 seasons with the Buffalo Bills in the National Football League. He led the Bills to four consecutive Super Bowl appearances from 1990 to 1993, although they did not manage to secure a win.

Kelly’s son, Hunter, was diagnosed with Krabbe disease (also known as globoid-cell leukodystrophy) shortly after his birth in 1997. To raise awareness of the rare nervous system disease, Kelly and his wife, Jill, founded a nonprofit organization, Hunter’s Hope, in 1997. Unfortunately, Hunter died in 2005 at the age of 8, and Kelly has devoted much of his time since to Hunter’s Hope.

In 2013, Kelly was diagnosed with oral cancer. He underwent surgery shortly after, then announced he was cancer-free. A year later, the cancer returned, and Kelly received radiation and chemotherapy, forcing the cancer into remission six months later. In 2018, the cancer returned once again, and Kelly had his maxillary jaw reconstructed using his fibula. He remains cancer free today.

Kelly will deliver the keynote address July 20 at AGD2023, and he took time to answer some questions.

AGD: How did your battle with oral cancer start? How did you learn the news?

Kelly: It all started with a pain in my cheeks that I thought was a toothache. I went from one root canal to another to another, but even after three or four root canals the pain still wouldn’t go away. I knew something else was wrong, so I went for a biopsy, and it came back negative. I said, that’s good, but what’s up with the pain? A month later, I had someone else do another biopsy. When I went back to the office for the results, I could just tell by the way the doctor said, “Come in, close the door, and sit down.” I knew from the first 10 seconds in that room that it wasn’t going to be good news. He said, “Unfortunately, Jim, we did find cancer in your upper jaw — squamous cell carcinoma.”

After I left the office, I broke down. I pulled off to the side of the road. I cried — not because I had cancer, but because I had to tell my wife and my two daughters who had already been through so much with Hunter. We had just lost him a few years earlier. Was my wife going to lose her husband, and were my daughters going to lose their dad?

After I sat them all down, it didn’t take very long for us to realize that we’re all in this together. They went from tears to fighting. They said, “We’ve been through a lot in life, but we’re going to beat this.” The attitude they had from the start was something I needed.

You didn’t fight cancer just once, but three times. How did it feel to have beaten it, only to have it return again and again?

The first time it came back was a little over a year later. The pain was there again. I got another biopsy and found out that the cancer had come back, but this time it had come back with a vengeance. The doctor said it needed to be taken care of right away because it had moved into my maxillary nerve and was headed toward my ganglia — which led to my brain. If it got to that point, my days were numbered. I had already gone through 35 radiation sessions and the most extreme chemotherapy you could go through.

The doctor told my brother, Danny, “I know you guys are a Christian family and believe in miracles — you’re going to need one for Jim.” The doctor told him I had less than a 10% chance of making it, but Danny never told anyone that because he saw the fight that my family and I had in us. He kept it to himself because he didn’t want to change anyone’s attitude. I only found out about this later when we were doing an interview with the “Today” show, and he told that story.

My dad taught my brothers and me that we’re all going to go through tough times, but our attitude to stay strong will get us through. That’s what got me through my mom’s emphysema and my son’s illness. 

You’re going to lose games. You’re going to throw an interception. But what do you do after the interception? Do you worry about it, or do you learn from it, move on and try to make something positive happen? I’ve been to four Super Bowls, and when we lost, I never let it affect the way I played the following year. You have to surround yourself with good people. I had a great head coach in Marv Levy, and I had a very loyal, Christian wife, Jill, who believes in prayer and helped me believe in it more than I ever had in my life. The Kellys never give up, and I had my two daughters, my wife and five brothers with me every step of the way.

And then it came back again. I was having issues on the other side of my mouth, and my dentist said I needed to have a biopsy. So I did, and it had come back. I had a couple of options: I could have a surgery where part of my skull was removed, or I could have part of my left fibula removed, broken into four places and then used to reconstruct my upper jaw. Then the doctors would take blood vessels from my arm and my leg and use those to rebuild my whole upper jaw. So I chose that option. I told people, “I know I’ve put my foot in my mouth a couple times, but I’ve never had my fibula in it.”

Here I am now, feeling better than I’ve felt in a long time. I recently had an MRI and a PET scan, and I’m all clear with no cancer. 

You mentioned your greatest strength through this hard time was your attitude. How did you maintain it?

I live by the four Fs. The first is Faith. My faith in the good Lord is one of the reasons why I’m still here. I want to help other people realize that prayer is a good thing. I believe that He had plans for me, and they included traveling the country speaking and making sure that people don’t give up. Prayer comes first, then your attitude comes second. 

The second F is my Family. You don’t need people coming to your room with frowns and tears. Not once did my family walk into my hospital room with frowns. They walked in with an attitude that they’re going to make a difference in my life. From the time they walked in to when they left, they made me believe that I was going to live for the day and I was going to wake up to see tomorrow.

The third F is my Friends. My good friends and some of my teammates would bring me puzzles and stay in touch. Dan Marino brought me stone crabs when I was in New York City, and we had a great time feasting on those and laughing. Donald Trump, who was the owner of the New Jersey Generals when my team, the Houston Gamblers, merged with them, gave me a whole apartment for my family to stay in while I was receiving treatment.

The fourth F is my Fans, who have supported me every step of the way.

Dentists can serve as the first line of defense against oral cancer. You’re going to be speaking to over a thousand of them for your AGD2023 keynote. What message do you hope to impart, and what do you hope they take away from your talk?

I hope they understand that people’s lives are changed because of dentists like them paying attention to details. They should look for signs other than toothaches. They should look for signs that something isn’t well.

If it wasn’t for my dentists, I might not be where I am today. They told me that I can be tough for a while, but I can’t be stupid. When something is important, tell your patients not to put it off. If tests show that something isn’t normal, get it checked out. The key to oral cancer is early detection. If you suspect something’s wrong, get it checked.

I end all my talks by saying you might know someone who is going through a tough time. What that hug and that positive attitude can do is help them realize that there is a tomorrow, and they have to keep fighting through to reach it. Always be there for the people you love. 

AGD2023 registration includes admission to NFL Hall of Fame quarterback and oral cancer survivor Jim Kelly’s keynote. Register for AGD2023 today!