Kelly Tough

Kelly Tough Photo by Benjamin Norman

NFL Hall of Famer Jim Kelly Takes Down Head & Neck Cancer

by Kaylene Chadwell

NFL Hall of Famer Jim Kelly is known as one of the top quarterbacks in the history of professional football. He played for the Buffalo Bills for 11 remarkable seasons, leading the squad to the playoffs eight times and tabbing four consecutive Super Bowl appearances from 1991 to 1994. During his career, the Bills were one of the most successful teams in the NFL, boasting a dangerous offense led by Jim himself.

It’s easy to see the lasting impact he had on Buffalo and on the NFL. In 2001, he became the first and one of only two Bills players to have his number (12) officially retired. Nicknamed “Machine-Gun Kelly,” Jim was known for running Buffalo’s famous no-huddle offense, racking up an impressive 35,467 passing yards, 237 touchdowns, and 2,874 completions throughout his career, and stamping his name all over the NFL record books. He still holds the all-time NFL record for most yards gained per completion in a single game. 

The diagnoses that tested his toughness

Considered one of the toughest quarterbacks in football history, Jim Kelly became known for his on-field motto, “You have to be ‘Kelly tough,’” meaning being tough not just physically but also mentally. In 1997, that motto took on a new meaning when Jim’s son, Hunter, was diagnosed with Krabbe disease (also known as globoid cell leukodystrophy) as an infant. Heartbreakingly, he passed away at the age of eight, but lived five years longer than doctors had predicted.

Again in 2013, Jim’s toughness was tested when he was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma in his upper jaw. “The first thing I did when I left [the doctor’s office], I was driving home, and I pulled off to the side of the road and I just started crying,” Jim reveals in a recent interview with Coping magazine. “It wasn’t because of me worrying about my life. I was more worried about how I was going to tell my wife and my two daughters. How am I going to tell my daughters that have already lost their brother and my wife who lost her son? I knew the toll that took on my family. And here’s a chance they could lose me to cancer.”

You go through tough times in your life, everybody does, but it’s the attitude you have and the will to keep fighting through the difficult times.

Jim had surgery that June to remove the cancerous cells in his jaw. His doctors declared the surgery a success. But less than a year later, in March 2014, Jim received devastating news – his cancer was back. This time around, he would need aggressive chemo and radiation. 

He credits his wife, two daughters, and five brothers for being instrumental in helping him stay positive and “Kelly tough” through both rounds with cancer. “I had a great team,” Jim shares. “My wife and my two daughters, not one time did they ever walk into my room with a frown on their face. They always walked in with that attitude that they were going to make my day better.”

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On making it through treatment 

To treat his cancer the first time around, doctors removed Jim’s whole left upper jaw, along with his teeth. He now wears a removable prosthetic jaw and teeth that allow him to eat, drink, and speak normally. 

When his cancer recurred, surgery wasn’t an option due to the location of the tumors in the base of his skull. Instead, he endured more than 35 radiation treatments, along with aggressive chemotherapy. In addition to losing his hair, the treatment caused him to lose 70 pounds from his large, athletic frame. “For five days a week, you go through radiation treatments, and then four bouts of chemo,” Jim says. “That in itself is enough to throw anybody down.”

However, no matter how difficult the journey became, Jim’s positivity shined. “It’s not easy, but it’s your attitude that you have about going out there, fighting, and never giving up,” Jim says. “My attitude has been that way ever since I was little. It’s how we were brought up in a family with six boys. You go through tough times in your life, everybody does, but it’s the attitude you have and the will to keep fighting through the difficult times. This was just one of those times in my life that I had to bounce back up. I’ve had to do it many times before.”

Three months after completing his final treatment, Jim was declared cancer-free. However, he will continue going in for MRIs every three months for the rest of his life to make sure the cancer doesn’t come back. Though these tests can often be anxiety-provoking, Jim doesn’t let it get to him. “I’m staying positive,” he stresses. “It’s just what you have to do.”

A game plan to make a difference

A former quarterback, Jim is all too familiar with making game plans on the field. Recently, he took his expertise off the gridiron by teaming up with Merck, the Head and Neck Cancer Alliance, Support for People with Oral and Head and Neck Cancer, and Savor Health for the Your Cancer Game Plan awareness campaign to help people with head and neck cancer and their loved ones tackle their emotional, nutritional, and communication needs. Jim explains that the program is exactly what he needed five years ago when he was facing cancer. 

Jim Shares How to Be “Kelly Tough” When Facing Cancer

When it comes to managing side effects …  
One of the things is just eating right and not putting so much junk into your system. I know to a certain point that’s a cliché because that’s what you should do anyway. But especially for somebody going through head and neck cancer, it is so important to eat the right things and put the right things in your body. For me, I was one of those guys that could eat pretty much anything and feel good about it. But once you start really eating well, it makes a big difference in how you feel.

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For those facing cancer right now … 
Keep fighting no matter what. Fight until the last day. Who knows if that’s going to be next week, two months from now, or twenty-five years from now? You just have to keep fighting and keep that positive attitude.

For those facing cancer right now … 
Keep fighting no matter what. Fight until the last day. Who knows if that’s going to be next week, two months from now, or twenty-five years from now? You just have to keep fighting and keep that positive attitude.

On how cancer changes your outlook on life … 
As the old saying goes, don’t take things for granted. Now you look back and you cherish all those times that you were able to have. You reminisce more. You set more goals. I have a bucket list. My bucket list is filling up, which is good. I’m checking things off. I live each and every day. And I’ll tell you what, if the good Lord decides tomorrow is my day, then tomorrow is my day. I’m going out with a smile on my face because I lived a life that a lot of people only dream about. Yeah, I’ve been through some tough times, but we all have.

“I am living proof that you do need a game plan,” Jim asserts. “If you are lost and if you do not know where to turn, we have a lot of answers for you. You don’t have to go on the internet and find thousands of things. Now there’s a game plan.”

As the founder of the Kelly for Kids Foundation and cofounder of Hunter’s Hope Foundation, making a difference is just what Jim does. It’s part of who he is. This is evidenced by another personal motto of his, one that holds special meaning for him as a cancer survivor: “Make a difference today for someone who is fighting for tomorrow.” 

This is what Jim hopes to do through his latest awareness campaign. “If I can be an influence on others to never give up, to make sure they keep fighting, then that’s what I’m going to do,” Jim says. “Now I have my own game plan, and that’s to help other people and make sure they never, ever give up.”

You can keep up with Jim Kelly by visiting or following him on Twitter @JimKelly1212.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2017.