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From one 12 to another: On beating cancer twice

Posted Mar 22, 2014

Joe Ferguson and Jim Kelly have much in common, and Ferguson expects those commonalities will soon grow to include two-time cancer survivors.

Of the qualities an NFL quarterback must have to be successful, competitiveness and toughness rank high on the list.

Of the qualities it takes to beat cancer, competitiveness and toughness rank just as high.

So it will be no surprise to Joe Ferguson when fellow former Bills quarterback and number 12 Jim Kelly competes against the disease and notches one in the win column for the second time.

And Ferguson would know, because he’s done it himself.

“Jim and I had two different types of deals, but cancer scares you to death,” Ferguson said. “The first time you hear it it’s bad, but it goes through your mind when it happens the second time that you’re going to be dealing with it off and on for the rest of your life and that’s disappointing.”

‘Disappointing,’ is surely an understatement from the ever-upbeat Ferguson, another quality he and Kelly share. After successfully fighting lymphoma with chemotherapy treatments that would eventually bring on his leukemia two years later, Ferguson is six years healthy at 63.

“When it’s gone you feel in your heart that it’s over with and you move on and then it comes back,” he said, with a hint of past pain in his voice. “It’s tough to deal with it mentally, more than anything.”

Physically, he said of course it’s tremendously tough, but he’s taken a sack or two from a big-bodied NFL defender so he knows what pain feels like. Not only that, but doctors told him his ‘upper level shape’ as a former professional athlete helped him navigate the disease.

Mentally though, he said the second diagnosis took a toll. He channeled football instincts to get him through.

“I think with the ups and downs of our careers, we face it kind of like that,” he said, speaking for himself and Kelly. “The ritual that we went through in terms of winning and losing has a lot to do with it. You deal with it and move on. When you lose a big game, you move on. And I think that kicks in from what we’ve been through in athletics.”

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The outpouring of support from the community doesn’t hurt in the mental battle against cancer, either. Ferguson said he received notes of support from Bills fans around the world, including members of the military stationed in Iraq. Those positive notes and prayers uplifted him as he knows Kelly and his family have been uplifted by the Western New York community and beyond since his diagnosis.

And from one 12 to another, Ferguson’s advice to Kelly was simple.

“If you don’t have a positive attitude about it, it just gets to you,” he said. “You have to stay upbeat and positive about it. You just accept the positive side of it and move forward, because there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Competitiveness, toughness, and positivity are three qualities Ferguson and Kelly have in abundance.

“He’s a fighter. That’s the best thing about it. You’ve got to have that mentality. With Jim’s competitive mentality, he’s definitely not going to quit.”