Curt Schilling Reveals He Was Diagnosed With Mouth Cancer in February, Believes Chewing Tobacco Was the Cause
Curt Schilling, the former Red Sox pitcher and ESPN analyst, announced today during the WEEI/NESN Jimmy Fund Radio Telethon that he was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma — which is cancer in the mouth — in February.
“This all came about from a dog bite,” Schilling said. “I got bitten by a dog and I had some damage to my finger and I went to see a doctor, and the day that I went to see the doctor, I was driving and I went to rub my neck and I felt a lump on the left side of my neck. And I knew immediately it wasn’t normal. So there happened to be an ENT [Ear, Nose, and Throat] right next door to the hand doctor, and I thought what the heck, let me just stop in and see and so I waited in the office and went in there and they did the biopsy, and two days later, they diagnosed me with squamous cell carcinoma.
“You know what the amazing thing was? And I was just dumbfounded by it. You’ve just been told you have cancer and you walk out into the public and the world’s still going on and it was really a challenge to wrap my head around that. My second thought was, ‘Yeah, really, you think I can handle this too?’ So after a couple of tests, I got sent over to Brigham and Women’s and Dana-Farber and that’s where I met Dr. Haddad and the amazing team of people that got me through my treatment.”
Dr. Robert Haddad, from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, described Schilling’s cancer.
“Commonly this is known as mouth cancer,” Dr. Haddad said. “This is the type of the cancer we call the squamous cell carcinoma. It’s cancer of the lining of the mouth and the lump in the neck is why most patients go to the doctor first, because they feel the lump in the neck so that’s the lymph node that’s enlarged and that’s the most common presentation for these cancers. It often presents as a lump in the neck that drives the patient to go see the doctor, and then the biopsy is done and then that shows squamous cell carcinoma, and that’s the type of the cancer.”
The 47-year-old Schilling — who weighed just over 200 pounds prior to his cancer diagnosis — lost 75 pounds during his treatment. Most of the weight loss was due to the fact that he was unable to swallow. He also has lost his ability to taste and smell.
The former Red Sox righthander stressed the importance of getting in for treatment early.
“One of the amazing things was early on when I was talking to [Dr. Haddad] about this, I literally went to see a doctor like five days after I felt the lump, he said the average time for a patient is 10 months,” Schilling said. “Ten months from the time they notice something to the time they say something. I can’t believe… people need to be more self-aware.
“I didn’t talk about it for two reasons. No. 1, I didn’t want to get into the chewing tobacco debate, which I knew was going to come about, which to me, I’ll go to my grave believing that was why I got what I got… absolutely, no question in my mind about that. And the second thing was I didn’t want people to feel sorry for me. I didn’t want the pity or any of that stuff because early on… I ended up spending about six months in the hospital because I had a bad reaction. I had a staph infection. I had what’s called C. diff. I had a couple different problems and there was a week there, there’s a week of my life I don’t remember while I was in the hospital going through this.
“The second or third day — I got chemo and radiation for seven weeks — and I came back to the room and my family was sitting there and I thought, ‘You know what, this could be so much worse. It could be one of my kids, it’s not. I’m the one guy in my family that can handle this,’ and so from that perspective it never, ever said ‘Why me? And I never will. I do believe without a doubt, unquestionably that chewing is what gave me cancer and I’m not going to sit up here from the pedestal and preach about chewing. I will say this: I did for about 30 years. It was an addictive habit. I can think of so many times in my life when it was so relaxing to just sit back and have a dip and do whatever, and I lost my sense of smell, my taste buds for the most part. I had gum issues, they bled, all this other stuff. None of it was enough to ever make me quit. The pain that I was in going through this treatment, the second or third day it was the only thing in my life that had that I wish I could go back and never have dipped. Not once. It was so painful.”
According to Schilling, the most painful part of the treatment was the radiation, which he received five days a week over seven weeks. Schilling’s doctors created a pliable mask to protect his face. Schilling called it “the straitjacket for when they are giving you radiation.”
“The first day I went in, they clamped [the mask] down, they do the radiation into the tumors,” Schilling said. “The second day they did it. And about the third day I started developing almost a phobia and I literally had to be medicated for the seven weeks to go and do that. I couldn’t control myself under the mask… If this happened again, I’m not sure if I would go through the treatment again, it was that painful.”
Dr. Haddad concurred that chewing tobacco leads to the mouth cancer Schilling was diagnosed with.
“One of the directs for oral cancer is smokeless tobacco, just what we’re talking about here,” Dr. Haddad said. “So it is not a question mark. This is shown repeatedly and the National Cancer Institute clearly makes the case that any form of tobacco is harmful and should not be used.”
Schilling spoke about the day he found out about Tony Gwynn’s death. Gwynn – a Hall of Famer — died of salivary gland cancer on June 16 at the age of 54. Gwynn blamed his mouth cancer on his habit of dipping smokeless tobacco during his 20-year career with the San Diego Padres.
“I knew a while ago that things were not going well just because he went radio silent after everything that happened,” Schilling said. “From the people I talked to, he was in very, very bad shape at the end. Again, I got lucky. There’s so may other places this could have come up and they could have had to take half my jaw. I met a guy — so I was Brigham and Women’s palliative care floor, the fifth floor, which is kind of a new thing and an amazing thing — who had, smoker, who had cancer of the mouth and they had to cut off half of his tongue and they went down and grafted from his forearm and rebuilt it back. Just the stuff was mind boggling…
“I’ve seen Dana-Farber from the other side. As someone who’s been around spring training with the kids. I’ve been over there and visited a couple of times, but being on this side of it was mind boggling.”
Schilling spoke about what lies ahead for him from hereon out.
“I’m in remission,” he said. “Doc and I are going to be meeting each other on and off for the next five years. It’s the recovery that’s a challenge because there are so many things that are damaged during the process. I don’t have any salivary glands so I can’t taste anything and I can’t smell anything right now so and there’s no guarantee they’ll come back.”
Dr. Haddad stressed that these types of cancers are treatable and that his sense of taste and smell should come back.
“Without discussing this specific case, in head and neck cancers or cancers of the mouth, these are treatable cancers, these are curable cancers in a large percentage of patients,” Dr. Haddad said. “But the treatment is very tough, it’s very grueling, a lot of side effects. Those side effects are acute, meaning they happen [during] the first year of treatment like we’re seeing now with Curt: the dry mouth and the trouble swallowing and eating, the infections, and there’s the long-term side effects, So that is the recovery process that can take up to five years but these cancers are treatable, are curable, they do require a lot of specialties coming together.”
Clay Buchholz and Dustin Pedroia, two Red Sox stars with young children, addressed their chewing habit with the Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy at Fenway Park after Gwynn’s death in June.
“Cancer runs in my family,” said Buchholz, as he sat in front of his locker with a wad of smokeless tobacco wedged between his lower lip and gums according to Shaughnessy. “There’s been people that have never smoked a cigarette or had a dip or chew and they’ve died of lung cancer.
“Everybody here is a grown man, and I think that’s how everybody views it. I don’t dip during the offseason, it’s only during baseball. It’s more of a stress-reliever type of thing for me.”
I’m trying to stop,” said Pedroia. “It’s not a good habit. It’s one of those things, you try like heck. I wish I had never started.
“Everyone crushes me about it. You don’t want any kid to start doing it. Obviously, it’s addicting. It’s not good for you and can cause a lot of problems.
“You try the best you can to stop or not start it. It’s like any bad habit. People do things that aren’t good for you. A lot of things can hurt yourself, whether its drinking or tobacco. It’s hard to stop. I’ve stopped a few times and started back up. But I’ve cut back a lot.”
“I’m addicted to it, former Sox pitcher Josh Beckett told the Los Angeles Times after Gwynn’s death. “It’s more than just the nicotine. Its the oral fixation. I don’t think anyone does it just for the nicotine thing, or wed probably all be on the patch.”
The 2011 labor agreement between the players’ union and Major League Baseball included certain limits on the use of smokeless tobacco, but did not ban its use entirely. Players are not allowed to carry tobacco packages in their uniform pockets, and tobacco use during televised interviews and non-game functions is prohibited. Also, teams cannot provide tobacco for players.
In June, nine major medical and public health organizations have written to MLB and the players’ union urging them to agree to a complete prohibition on tobacco use at ballparks and on camera.
In April, Schilling’s wife Shonda, herself a melanoma survivor, tweeted that Schilling had finished radiation.
On Facebook that month, Schilling wrote, To the many, many amazing folks at Dana Farber, [Brigham and Women’s Hospital] and [Massachusetts General Hospital], thank you and to the amazing team these last 5 months. I’ve been told my cancer is in remission, start the 5-year clock.
In May, a weakened Schilling took the field at Fenway as part of the 10th anniversary celebration of the 2004 championship team. Schilling was aided onto the field by his son Gehrig and said he was back in the hospital two days later.
“I was in the hospital at the time, and they wouldn’t let me come over here and go back,” Schilling said. “So I had to determine if I was OK and ready to be discharged and I said ‘yeah, yeah, yeah, OK,’ and two days later I was back in the hospital. That’s why Gehrig walked out with me because I was afraid I was going to fall on the way in because I was so discombobulated. But it was nice. It was good to see the guys.”
On June 25, Schilling tweeted: “As of yesterday I am in remission. Start the 5 year clock!”
Schilling, who spent four seasons of his 20-year major league career with the Red Sox and was instrumental in their World Series victories in 2004 and ’07, joined ESPN as a studio analyst for ESPN’s “Baseball Tonight” in 2010.
In December, he was chosen to replace Orel Hershiser for the high-profile role as a color analyst on ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” broadcasts alongside Dan Shulman and John Kruk.
Schilling pitched for five teams during his major league career, winning 216 games and compiling 3,116 strikeouts. He made six All-Star teams, won at least 21 games in a season three times — including in 2004 with the Red Sox. He won his first of three World Series titles with the 2001 Diamondbacks.
Schilling had found his niche as an analyst after enduring some difficult times in recent years. A video game business suffered a prominent and costly failure in Rhode Island, one that cost the state tens of millions of dollars and Schilling the bulk of his baseball fortune. He revealed to the Globe’s Stan Grossfeld in an August 2013 story that he suffered a heart attack in November 2011 that required surgery to implant a stent in an artery.
Listen to Schilling’s complete interview on WEEI here.
The Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy and Boston.com’s Chad Finn contributed to this report.
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