No matter how many successful surgeries are performed or how much chemo is pumped into the body, or how many tests come back negative, or how many days life becomes normal again, or how many prayers are answered, cancer rarely surrenders and never disappears for good.
Even survivors who whipped the disease and returned to full health would concede it remains in the mind long after it's removed from the body. It stays in the backdrop while stalking its victims, waking up with them in the morning and going to sleep with them at night, deviously waiting to strike without ever truly going away.
Jim Kelly knew as much.
Oral cancer didn't get the message the first time it challenged the Hall of Fame quarterback. The disease that attempted to kill him five years ago, and instead revealed his character and toughness, has demanded a rematch with Buffalo's beloved adopted son. Apparently, cancer doesn't like losing, either.
Kelly's statement Thursday announcing the disease had returned took our breath away much the way it did in 2013, when he was initially diagnosed, but it was less shocking this time around. Cancer doesn't get intimidated by the name of the opponent or the ferocity in which he fights. It doesn't care about its previous won-loss record.
If it did, it would choose someone else.
"As our family has faced many trials and triumphs throughout the years, you have blessed us with your prayers. We are asking for those prayers once again," Kelly said. "Although I was shocked and deeply saddened to receive this news, I know that God is with me. I continuously talk about the four F's: Faith, Family, Friends and Fans. With all of you by my side, we will fight and win this battle together."
It’s important to note that Kelly didn't mention another F – football – which explains where the game belongs in the grand scheme of life. Football is the reason for his celebrity, but it never was the reason for his existence. After all the touchdown passes and great moments on the field, he ultimately realized his calling was helping people. Now, he needs people praying for him.
Betting against him would be foolhardy, by the way. Kelly was knocked down and dragged around more times than he could count but kept getting up for more. At age 58, he has the same fervor he had at age 18, when he left East Brady, Pa., for Miami, or age 30, when he lost his first Super Bowl, or age 44, when he lost his son.
Cancer has returned because that's what it does. Just know that Kelly will be back for another challenge because that's what he does. That much hasn't changed for as long as anyone has known him. He's Exhibit A when talking about strength of the human spirit. His stubbornness will serve him well again.
Friends and family who have supported him throughout his life and fans who were behind him for more than 30 years will be there again, too, because that's what they do. His family for years has talked about being "Kelly Tough," but for him it was never a catchy slogan so much as his daily existence.
None of this made the latest news any easier, of course. Kelly must have been devastated when hearing the diagnosis after years of living cancer free. It would test anybody's resolve, even an eternal optimist like him, after all the surgeries, feeding tubes, chemotherapy, pain and God knows what else. But knowing him, he'll keep battling.
You wonder how much one man can tolerate until you remember that you're talking about this man. Kelly has persevered through so much adversity, in so many ways, that it's difficult to imagine him surrendering this time around. The cold, harsh reality is that we don't know while people #PrayForJK. He could beat cancer again. He could be living on bonus time.
Kelly and the people around him should take comfort in what was gained in the five years since cancer first threatened to take him away. He inspired thousands of others battling the disease, showing how the power of faith, when combined with family and friends, can put up a hell of a fight.
He was able to see his daughter, Erin, write a best-selling book and graduate from college before he walked her down the aisle on her wedding day. He was there when his younger daughter, Camryn, graduated from high school and left for college. He was there when his father passed away.
Rather than concentrate on the suffering he endured and time spent while battling cancer, Kelly often emphasized how the disease made him a better husband and father and a better human being overall. He has loaned his name and used his fame to raise millions of dollars for charities in the fight against cancer and other diseases, especially those affecting kids.
Rest assured he found peace as a cancer survivor, knowing darn well it also could return and challenge him again, the way it often does. If the disease ultimately wins, he can rest in peace knowing cancer will not be waiting for him when he wakes up in the morning and goes to bed at night, that cancer will not follow him to heaven.