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Kelly toughs it out as he battles cancer

This story originally appeared in The Buffalo News in May 2014.

Jim Kelly offered a poignant perspective Wednesday on his raging battle against cancer.

The Buffalo Bills’ Hall-of-Fame quarterback got choked up talking about the fact he recently had a feeding tube inserted into his stomach.

The tube is beneficial, and the added nutrition is helping Kelly’s strength and energy. But it was another tough development to absorb in his cancer fight.

“It was tough for me at the beginning when they told me that they’re going to have to put it in, because you don’t want to … it just seems like I’m falling apart,” Kelly said.

“When I started thinking about it, it scared me,” Kelly said. “Then I thought, my son had it. I always wanted to be like my son.”

Hunter Kelly, who battled a fatal genetic disease for eight years before his death in 2005, remains an inspiration to the Bills great. So, of course, do his wife and two daughters. So do Bills fans who have flooded him with an outpouring of prayers and support.

“The people of Western New York, I cannot thank enough,” Kelly said. “The letters I’ve received, and I try to read them all, and the cards, it’s just overwhelming.”

Kelly “is battling” and “getting through” the treatments with all of the legendary toughness for which he came to be known in his 11-year Bills career. He has eight more radiation treatments to go and one more course of chemotherapy.

Kelly’s cancer spread into his maxillary sinus cavity and adjacent tissues. Microscopic tumors spread up the infraorbital nerve, which runs from the upper lip to the eyelid and is close to the carotid artery.

The treatments should be done by the end of the month. Then Kelly will have to wait about two months, probably into August, to see how well the treatments worked. He’s under the care of Dr. Thom R. Loree, director of the department of head and neck and plastic and reconstructive surgery at Erie County Medical Center, and Dr. Peter D. Costantino, executive director of Lenox Hill Hospital Head & Neck Institute in New York City.

“They will review all of my exams and see where I’m at,” Kelly said. “And keep my fingers crossed and say a lot of prayers that the cancer is gone.”

Kelly’s daughters, Erin and Camryn, and his wife, Jill, have embraced the motto “Kelly Tough” to help keep his spirits up.

“How that came about was from my daughters, not having a son that was able to compete in sports, wanting my kids to always be tough and knowing how my father raised me,” Kelly said. “When my daughters would fall down the steps … I’d say, ‘You’ve got to be Kelly tough.’ … I don’t care if they’re a girl or not, they still gotta be tough girls. That started a long time ago.

“My daughter Erin picked up on it when I was going through my early bouts of this,” Kelly said. “She said, ‘You’ve gotta be Kelly tough now, daddy.’ If she’s saying it to me and I said it to her, it’s gotta mean the same thing.”

Kelly has needed to summon his strength because the chemotherapy and radiation are difficult. Some days are better than others. Wednesday was not particularly good from a pain standpoint.

“Every day is a battle, because right now is when the radiation is hitting me more than any time,” he said. “It’s like I feel my mouth so much, it reminds me back when I was in ninth-grade little league, wearing my baseball shoes, and … you’re running getting blisters. That’s the same way it is with my mouth now. Just more ulcers. Radiation is just burning the inside. I have no more skin on the roof of my mouth. It’s just very painful right now. But I’m getting through it.”

The feeding tube has helped.

“In reality, it’s making him stronger,” said his brother, Dan. “To see his energy level, I mean, when he started getting some nutrition in him, his energy level went through the roof.”

Kelly said he’s thankful for all the Bills fans who show their support on social media with “prayers for JK” messages. He’s thankful for the owner of Ilio DiPaolo’s restaurant in Blasdell, Dennis DiPaolo, who has brought his family food countless days the past two months. And he’s appreciative of the resolve he gets from being around other cancer patients.

“It’s funny because when you see what everybody else is going through, other kids with cancer, you never feel sorry for yourself, and I never have,” he said.

“I’ve gotten a number of emails from people who have been through the same and have told me what I should look forward to and maybe some things they did to help with their pain,” he said. “Even though a lot of it is stuff that I’ve already heard, it’s good to hear.”

Costantino has called Kelly’s cancer “very treatable” and “potentially curable.” Kelly is a realist. He knows he’s fighting for his life.

“Potential doesn’t mean nothing to me, unless it’s done,” he said.

Kelly embraced his Christianity in 2007 and said his faith has been his greatest source of support.

“I’m serious, if it wasn’t for my faith, and knowing that I’m not scared to die … if that day comes, I know one thing, and I told my wife this, I’ll be there to see our son, Hunter,” he said.

“I know my tomorrows are going to be better than my todays,” Kelly said. “My faith has helped me know what is down the road. Before, I would have been lost, not knowing what the outcome is going to be. But now that I know I will see my son again, that puts a smile on my face.”

Make no mistake, however, Kelly’s resolve to fight and win is fierce.

“I fight every battle, every day,” he said. “When I talk about cancer, I don’t talk as a former NFL player, I talk as a father of two beautiful daughters and a husband, and a person who wants to continue to live a healthy life here in Western New York and see my grandchildren,” he said.

“I still have so many things I have to do,” he added.

One of those is trying to help ensure the Bills remain in Western New York.

“I didn’t want to fight two battles at once, but I’ve got some good people behind me,” Kelly said. “I’m not one to sit back.”

Kelly believes that a group intending to keep the team in the area will win the bid to buy the team. He’s not taking it for granted.

“I’m confident, but I’ll tell you what, it’s not going to be easy,” he said. “When you start talking about $1 billion that’s a different animal. You start talking about another three-quarters of a billion for a stadium, that’s a different animal.”

“But there’s guys out there who are excited,” Kelly said. “Donald Trump, for example. I’ve talked to him. I’ve talked to a number of people. The last couple months, my brother, Danny, has been doing most of the filtering for me. But he’s just one of a handful who would love to step up. When that time comes, we’ll see.”

Kelly is not hitching his full support to any one group at the moment. Ultimately, he hopes to be aligned with the group that wins the bid.

“It’s too early to tell, because there’s so many people out there,” he said. “We should know within the next six months who the real players are.

“Keep voicing your opinion,” Kelly encourages Bills fans, “because whoever becomes the owner of this team, we want them to know that Western New York has to be the destination. … The bottom line is, it’s gotta stay the Buffalo Bills.”


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