Kelly’s good news comes with some uncertainty

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – Head and neck cancers are the fifth most common cancers worldwide, and there are around 800 a year in Western New York.

The good news is, most of those people are cured. Head and neck cancers are much less likely to spread widely in the body than lung or breast or colon cancer, so the cure rate is higher.

Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly’s good news that he appears to be cancer-free was tempered by a bit of uncertainty. He still needs more tests.

Dr. Saurin Popat said, “There is no identifiable cancer on clinical examination and they’re relying upon testing such as an MRI scan, such as we have here to further determine whether he is cancer-free or not. At this point in time.”

Dr. Popat is a member of the department of head and neck surgery at ECMC, but he was not involved in Kelly’s care.

He points out that the majority of patients have pain relief, the way Kelly did, following treatment. The pain is caused by the tumor compressing or growing into one of the nearby nerves called the maxillary nerve.

Any asymmetry between one side of the maxillary nerve and the other could be an area of concern.

“Something such as a tissue biopsy may be warranted, additional imaging with more precise MRI or CT scans or PET scans may also be needed, or a combination of all of those,” Dr. Popat said.

Doctors usually wait five years with no recurrence to say someone is cured of cancer, but in oral cancers, there is often a quicker preview.

Dr. Popat explained, “If people have no evidence of disease, of the tumor coming back within two years, approximately 75 to 85 percent of these people can expect that they’ll reach that five-year mark very readily.”

If they find tumor on Kelly’s tests, there’s still a good chance they can get rid of it. Between 60 to 70 percent of head and neck cancers can be cured.

If they don’t find any tumor, they’ll still want to follow him frequently so that if it does come back again it will be discovered and treated quickly. provides commenting to allow for constructive discussion on the stories we cover. In order to comment here, you acknowledge you have read and agreed to our Terms of Service. Commenters who violate these terms, including use of vulgar language or racial slurs, will be banned. Please be respectful of the opinions of others. If you see an inappropriate comment, please flag it for our moderators to review. Note: Comments containing links are not allowed.

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