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Kelly sees jawbone cancer as ‘another river to cross’

BATAVIA – Buffalo Bills great Jim Kelly harkened back to a motivational phrase from his playing career in assessing the challenge he faces in battling cancer.

“When you hear the word cancer it actually scares the crap out of you,” Kelly told reporters at his celebrity golf tournament Monday. “I know it not only scared me, but it scared my family. But like everything, it’s just another river to cross.”

One more river to cross was a rallying cry the Bills used during their Super Bowl era in the 1990s, as they faced challenges each week on the football field.

Now Kelly faces his latest personal crisis following his announcement Monday that he has been diagnosed with squamous-cell cancer in his upper jawbone. He is scheduled to undergo surgery Friday in Erie County Medical Center.

Kelly said doctors have told him his prognosis for recovery is good, based on computed tomography scans of his head. He said tests show the cancer has not spread to other parts of the body.

“When I talked to the surgeon, and when they went over the CT scan, they knew I caught it early enough,” Kelly said. “But just like with anything, you have to wait a number of months after the surgery to make sure nothing comes back.

“I’m very confident. My faith is definitely there, and that’s probably more than anything what’s kept me going, and the support I’ve gotten from my family.”

The Hall of Fame quarterback, 53, has withstood a series of physical ailments in recent years. Two years ago, he had two discs replaced and a metal plate inserted in his lower back. Later in 2011, he had double hernia surgery. Last Dec. 12, he had a major surgery in which a plate and six screws were inserted into his neck.

Kelly said he has had pain in his jaw for about six months. In March, he had surgery to remove a cyst about the size of a nickel from his gums and nasal cavity. He had to have his front teeth removed as a result. About two weeks ago, doctors diagnosed the cancer.

“You have challenges, and you have to confront them head-on,” he said. “This is just another one. I’ve been to the top many, many times, and I’ve been to the bottom. It’s just one of those roller coaster rides I’ve been on throughout my life, and it’s just another challenge for me. I know I’ll beat it. That’s the bottom line.”

Kelly made the announcement at his 27th annual charity golf tournament at Terry Hills Golf Course.

Many of his former teammates, including Bills greats Andre Reed and Steve Tasker, were among the 250 golfers in attendance. The event raises about $250,000 annually to support Kelly’s two charities – the Kelly for Kids Foundation and the Hunter’s Hope Foundation.

“He cuts a wide swath through life,” Tasker said. “He never forgets anybody. He’s truly gifted in that respect. He’s got friends that he’s had for decades. … And he doesn’t forget people, and for that people love him. That’s why Buffalo loves him.”

“Jim’s a fighter, so I think he’ll be OK,” Reed said. “We’re all in his corner.”

Kelly maintained an upbeat attitude at Terry Hills, greeting golfers and former teammates with a backslap and a smile.

He said his surgery will be performed by Dr. Thom R. Loree, director of the department of head and neck and plastic and reconstructive surgery at ECMC.

“I knew through the whole beginning of this that something wasn’t right because when you take that many antibiotics and nothing works, you know something’s wrong,” Kelly said. “When the pain’s constantly there all the time, it’s no fun.

“We will know after the surgery if I have to do any radiation or chemo. I hope not because I’ve talked to people that have been through it. It’s not a pretty sight. But it’s part of the healing process. Whether I have to do that, right now I don’t. But again, after the surgery … we’ll learn a lot more of how everything’s progressing.”

Kelly said he encouraged doctors to do whatever it takes to remove the cancer.

“There has to be a hole that leads from my jawbone into my nasal cavity that has to be filled,” he said. “There’s bone grafting going to be done. I’m not a doctor, and I don’t know all the terminology. But I told him when I met with the whole team on Saturday, I said, ‘When you go in, do what you’ve got to do. If there’s something you don’t feel that looks right, take it out.’ Whatever needs to be done so I am better off when I come out.”

Kelly said he’s determined to face the battle with a forward-looking attitude, something he has relied upon through other life crises, such as the death of his son, Hunter.

“I’ve been through it all, with all the things not only in my professional career, but with my son and all the things we went through there,” he said. “You gotta stay strong. That’s the Kelly way. That’s how I was brought up by my father. That’s how he raised his six sons. Things are going to happen in your life, and you have to meet it head-on, meet the challenge and win.”

Hunter Kelly died at age 8 in 2005. He was born with Krabbe disease, an inherited degenerative disorder of the central and peripheral nervous systems. Kelly and his wife, Jill, have two teenage daughters, Erin and Camryn.