February 03, 2018
3 min read

Jim Kelly, football great and cancer survivor, joins effort to help those ‘fighting for their tomorrow’

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Jim Kelly


This weekend’s Super Bowl LII showdown between the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles will coincide with World Cancer Day, an international observance held every Feb. 4 to emphasize the importance of cancer prevention, detection and treatment.

On the eve of the big game, Jim Kelly — a cancer survivor and member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame — is encouraging all Americans touched by cancer to take the Your Cancer Game Plan Challenge.

The national awareness campaign celebrates patient advocates who dedicate their lives to helping individuals with cancer and their loved ones.

Individuals are urged to visit www.yourcancergameplan.com/join-our-challenge, select one of 19 participating advocacy organizations, and then share the website through their Facebook or Twitter feeds.

Merck will donate $5 to each selected advocacy organization between Jan. 31 and March 1. The company pledged to provide up to $200,000 in total.

“The bottom line is, it’s all about making a difference,” Kelly told Healio.com. “A couple years ago, I came up with the phrase, ‘Make a difference today for someone who is fighting for their tomorrow.’ I know how much it meant to me to have people beside me and going through my cancer journey with me. It really does make a huge difference.”

Kelly played his entire 11-year NFL career with the Buffalo Bills, leading them to a record four consecutive Super Bowl appearances. He retired after the 1996 season, and he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2002, his first year of eligibility.

Kelly — who never smoked, chewed tobacco or “dipped” — was diagnosed in June 2013 with squamous cell carcinoma in his upper jaw. Surgeons removed part of his jawbone and described the procedure as successful.

Nine months later, however, follow-up tests revealed cancer in his sinus. Kelly, who underwent chemotherapy and radiation, was given a 10% chance to survive.

He beat the odds, although the grueling treatment left him unable to produce saliva. He has difficulty speaking and also lost his sense of taste.

Two years ago, he joined Your Cancer Game Plan. The initiative — a collaboration between Merck and the cancer advocacy community — is designed to help people with cancer and their loved ones develop strategies to address their health, emotional and communication needs.

“This is everything my wife and I needed when I was diagnosed with cancer,” Kelly said. “I had never heard of squamous cell carcinoma. I had so many questions, and I didn’t know where to turn. I knew getting involved with Merck and teaming up with Your Cancer Game Plan would be an opportunity to make a difference for others in a similar situation.”

Program advocates also urge providers to:

Make sure patients understand what they are being told and feel empowered — and encouraged — to ask questions;

Assess patients’ emotional support systems by observing their interactions with friends or family members who accompany them to appointments, and ask them if they have considered contacting an advocacy organization or support group; and

Encourage patients to pay attention to nutrition and ensure they are getting enough physical activity.

Kelly credits his faith, the prayers he received from football fans around the world, and the strength he received from his family — his wife, two daughters and five brothers — for helping him emerge from his treatment journey cancer free.

“Nobody ever walked into my hospital room with a frown on their face. They walked in with the attitude that they were going to make my day better by their presence,” Kelly said.

That message is important for members of the cancer care team to remember, he added.

“There were times when even I began to think, ‘Is this my last day?’” Kelly said. “But I’ll tell you what, the way a doctor or nurse looks at you and talks to you is so vital in how you go about your day, and how you feel when you wake up the next day.

“Their attitude means so much,” he added. “I want them to know, it’s not always what you say to someone but how you say it. It makes a big difference in putting a smile on their face and giving a person that fighting attitude.” – by Mark Leiser