Oral Cancer and Athletes

APRIL IS ORAL Cancer Awareness Month, an annual initiative to spread awareness about oral cancer and the importance of early detection. According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, approximately 54,000 people in the United States will be diagnosed with oral or oropharyngeal cancer this year. Sadly, about 10,850 of those cases will result in death.


Oral cancer can affect any part of the mouth, including the lips, tongue, cheeks, and throat. It can be caused by a variety of factors, including tobacco use, alcohol consumption, and the human papillomavirus (HPV). Early detection is key to successful treatment, which is why it’s so important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of oral cancer.

Thomas Edison once said, “The doctor of the future will give no medicine, but will interest his patients in the care of the human frame, in diet and in the cause and prevention of disease.” Edison’s quote perfectly captures the importance of preventive care in modern medicine. In the case of oral cancer, preventive care can mean quitting tobacco and limiting alcohol consumption, as well as getting regular oral cancer screenings.


Unfortunately, oral cancer doesn’t discriminate, and even celebrities and athletes can fall victim to this disease. Two well-known figures who have battled oral cancer are actor Michael Douglas and professional football player Jim Kelly.


Michael Douglas was diagnosed with stage IV oral cancer in 2010. He underwent intense radiation and chemotherapy treatments, and thankfully, his cancer is now in remission. However, the treatment left him with a host of side effects, including difficulty swallowing and chronic dry mouth. In an interview with The Guardian, Douglas talked about the impact that his cancer and its treatment had on his life:


“I’ve had to deal with the throat cancer – being able to speak again, feed myself again…all of this stuff I’m grateful for, but it’s hard. I still have to concentrate to swallow properly. And I can’t eat my favorite foods.”

Similarly, Jim Kelly, former quarterback for the Buffalo Bills, was diagnosed with oral cancer in 2013. Kelly underwent surgery to remove a portion of his jaw and underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Although his cancer is now in remission, the treatment left him with significant facial scarring and difficulty speaking. Kelly has used his platform to advocate for oral cancer awareness and early detection.


The stories of Michael Douglas and Jim Kelly highlight the devastating impact that oral cancer can have on a person’s life. They also underscore the importance of early detection and preventive care. By quitting tobacco, limiting alcohol consumption, and getting regular oral cancer screenings, we can reduce our risk of developing oral cancer and increase the chances of successful treatment if the disease is detected.


There have been several baseball players who have been diagnosed with oral cancer as a result of tobacco use. Here are three notable examples:

  1. Babe Ruth – The legendary baseball player and cultural icon, Babe Ruth, was a cigar enthusiast. In 1946, he was diagnosed with nasopharyngeal cancer, which is a type of cancer that affects the upper part of the throat behind the nose. Ruth underwent radiation therapy, but the cancer eventually spread to his lungs and brain, and he passed away in 1948 at the age of 53.
  2. Tony Gwynn – Tony Gwynn was a Hall of Fame outfielder who spent his entire 20-year career with the San Diego Padres. In 2010, he was diagnosed with salivary gland cancer, which is often linked to tobacco use. Gwynn underwent surgery and radiation therapy, but the cancer eventually returned, and he passed away in 2014 at the age of 54.
  3. Curt Schilling – Curt Schilling was a pitcher for several Major League teams, including the Philadelphia Phillies, Arizona Diamondbacks, and Boston Red Sox. In 2014, he announced that he had been diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma, a type of cancer that affects the cells in the lining of the mouth and throat. Schilling underwent radiation therapy and chemotherapy, and he is now in remission. Since his diagnosis, Schilling has become an advocate for oral cancer awareness and has spoken out about the dangers of tobacco use.


During Oral Cancer Awareness Month, take the time to learn more about oral cancer and the steps you can take to reduce your risk. If you notice any unusual changes in your mouth or throat, such as sores that don’t heal, persistent hoarseness, or difficulty swallowing, be sure to give us a call right away. With early detection and prompt treatment, we can work to prevent the devastating effects of oral cancer.