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Jim Kelly vows to win latest cancer battle, to undergo reconstructive jaw surgery

An upbeat Jim Kelly on Friday set his sights on beating an opponent that already has robbed some of his quality of life but hasn't crushed his spirit.

"I might have lost four Super Bowls in a row, but I've kicked cancer's (butt) twice," Kelly said by phone from his home in Orchard Park. "And I plan on making it a third, with the grace of God."

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On Thursday, the Buffalo Bills Hall of Fame quarterback revealed that he has had a recurrence of oral cancer, which was discovered from a biopsy taken Monday at Erie County Medical Center.

Kelly, who was first diagnosed with cancer in 2013, told The Buffalo News he was notified Wednesday that he had squamous cell carcinoma in the upper right jaw, a similar form of the disease that was surgically removed from his upper left jaw at ECMC in 2015.

He said the biopsy was done in advance of a procedure scheduled for March 28 at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. Originally, Kelly said, he planned to have his upper left jaw — part of which was removed, along with a portion of his palate — reconstructed to help relieve severe pain he has felt for three years.

However, once the new cancer was detected, the plan shifted to have it removed and reconstruction done on both sides.

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"God works in mysterious ways, because all the negatives might turn into a big positive," Kelly said. "Now, they can go in and remove the cancer that's on the other side and rebuild the whole jaw at the same time."

He said it was at the behest of Dr. Maureen Sullivan, chief of the department of dentistry and oral oncology at ECMC, with urging from his daughter Erin and wife, Jill, to have the biopsy. Dr. Sullivan had suggested she do the biopsy while Kelly was under anesthesia for the recent removal of his gallbladder. He said he told her he didn't want to do it then, because he was already going through enough with the gallbladder surgery and his wife being in the hospital at the same time with pneumonia and "I don't want to wake up with my gums torn up from a biopsy."

Dr. Sullivan, Erin and Jill persisted, and Kelly returned to ECMC for an examination.

"I saw a tissue problem," Dr. Sullivan said by phone from Buffalo. "I saw something that looked suspicious."

The results of the biopsy confirmed those suspicions, and Kelly received the call from Dr. Sullivan Wednesday, right after dropping off Jill and Erin at Buffalo Niagara International Airport, from where they were flying to visit the Kellys' other daughter, Camryn, at Liberty University in Virginia.

Kelly said he sought to have the reconstruction because he no longer could continue dealing with pain for which medication was no longer providing sufficient relief. He also no longer wanted to have the prosthesis he has had filling the gap left by the previous surgery.

"The bottom line is I can't rely on my medicine for the rest of my life," Kelly said. "And the quality of life was not there. Kelly Tough ... I can only be so tough. And then, after awhile, it was like Kelly Tough's getting old. I'm a human like everybody else. You can say what you want, but the thing is, pain is pain.

"I don't complain to anybody. But my family sees it every day and the thing is, (I know) the type of quality of life I want, and if there's something out there that can help me, then I need to pursue it, I need to look into it."

He said he chose Dr. Mark Urken, an otolaryngologist and head and neck surgeon at Mount Sinai, to handle the operation, because "the guy's the best at doing it. He wrote the book on this type of surgery and he's done thousands of them."

"The extent of what we were originally planning to do is not significantly different now," Dr. Urken said by phone from New York. "At this point, there's a slightly different focus with ensuring that all of this cancer that's present, which is not a large amount of disease, based on exam and based on the imaging studies that have done very recently. The expectation is that that won't change the operation significantly. I feel very confident that we're going to be able to get not only around this tumor very readily but also get Jim back on track here with, hopefully, a better quality of life moving forward."

Dr. Urken said the surgery, similar to the 2015 procedure, would involve the removal of part of Kelly's upper jaw and a segment of his palate. Using a technique called microvascular reconstruction, Dr. Urken said he would take a portion of the fibula from one of Kelly's legs — along with attached soft tissue and blood vessels — and insert it in his upper jaw.

"We contour that bone so that it functions as a new jaw for him and to then restore the circulation to that bone so that it can heal and survive in this new environment the way we want it do in order to create a new jaw," the doctor said.

Dr. Urken said that the leg from which part of Kelly's fibula is removed would function normally. The fibula is chosen because it is a non-weight-bearing bone.

"We don't interrupt the knee or the ankle joint where the fibula is part of that structure," the doctor said. "We take that central portion of it in order to redesign it and, essentially, repurpose it into functioning as a new jaw for him. But it will not affect Jim's gait or his ability to go back to playing sports, cycling, doing just about anything you want to do."

First, though, there is recovery. Kelly said he would be attached to a feeding tube and trach tube for two weeks after the surgery.

"The bottom line is I've been through so many things in my life and I keep getting thrown these curve balls and the bottom line is that you've got to trust in the good Lord that He has a plan for me down the road," Kelly said. "We all go through tough times. As a matter of fact, I was reading the Book of Job in my bible (Friday) morning, the last couple of days, and I understand all the things he went through. But he never once shied away from understanding that the Lord had plans.

"We're tested each and every day of our lives and you've got to stay faithful and that's the way I've been, that's the way my family's been. We leave it up to the Lord and just pray that we're making the right decisions and it is what it is and go with it and just hope for the best, pray for the best."

As Jim Kelly faces cancer again, a challenging medical path awaits

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