Schilling: Tobacco gave me cancer

ESPN logo
Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Former Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling revealed Wednesday for the first time the type of cancer he was battling -- squamous cell carcinoma, a type of mouth cancer -- and detailed the painful treatment and recovery process that caused him to lose 75 pounds.

Telling his story for the WEEI/NESN Jimmy Fund Radio-Telethon on Wednesday morning, Schilling said he believes that a 30-year habit of chewing tobacco is what caused the cancer.

"I do believe, without a doubt, unquestionably that chewing was what gave me cancer," he said. "I'm not going to sit up here from the pedestal and preach about chewing."

The 47-year-old Schilling said he spent six months in the hospital with a feeding tube, undergoing chemotherapy and painful radiation treatment. During that time, he said, he developed a staph infection and there was a week of his life he doesn't remember.

"I got chemo and radiation for [seven] weeks, and I came back to my room and my family was sitting there and I thought, 'You know what, this could be so much worse. This could be one of my kids,'" Schilling said. "I'm the one guy in this family that can handle this. From that perspective, I've never said 'Why me?' and I never will."

The most painful part of the treatment, he said, was the radiation, which he received five days per week for seven weeks. Schilling said doctors created a pliable mask to put on his face, an implement the former pitcher said was "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."

He added: "If this happened again, I'm not sure if I would go through the treatment again, it was that painful."

Schilling said he's lost so much weight because it is still painful to swallow -- "I can't put enough calories in my body" -- and he is still shaky and weak at times.

He paused several times during the interview to take sips of water (he says he still does not have any saliva), and his voice sounded different than we're used to hearing from Schilling. He is currently on leave from his job as an analyst on ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball telecast.

"Recovery is a challenge," Schilling said. "There are so many things that are damaged during the process. I don't have any salivary glands, I can't taste anything and I can't smell anything right now. And there's no guarantee they'll come back."

Schilling reiterated that the cancer was in remission, a statement he tweeted to the world for the first time in June, and that his follow-up care includes doctor visits every 1-2 months and scans every few months to determine if the cancer has returned.

He described how he first discovered the cancer over the winter.

"This all came about from a dog bite," Schilling explained.

He said the dog bite damaged his finger enough to send him to the doctor. On his way to see the physician, he felt a lump on the left side of his neck and decided to get it checked out with a nearby ear, nose and throat specialist.

"He did a biopsy and two days later he diagnosed me with squamous cell carcinoma," Schilling said.

It is the same type of cancer former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly is suffering from.

"Commonly this is known as mouth cancer ... cancer of the lining of the mouth," said Schilling's physician, Dr. Robert Haddad of the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. "The lump in the neck is why most patients go to the doctor first because they feel the lump in the neck, that's the lymph node that's enlarged."

This was Schilling's second public appearance since the cancer diagnosis. In May, he appeared at Fenway Park as the Red Sox celebrated the 2004 World Series-winning team.

"It was weird," Schilling explained of the appearance. "I was in the hospital at the time. They wouldn't let me come over [to Fenway] and go back [to the hospital]. So I had to determine if I was OK and ready to be discharged. I said 'Yeah, yeah, OK.' And two days later I was back in the hospital. That's why [my son] Gehrig walked out with me, because I was afraid I was going to fall on the way in because I was so discombobulated."

He was asked Wednesday why he has stayed out of the spotlight in recent months, choosing only now to talk about it for the first time.

"I didn't want people feeling sorry for me," he said. "I didn't want the pity, I didn't want any of that stuff."

Schilling pitched in the majors for 20 seasons with the Baltimore Orioles, Houston Astros, Philadelphia Phillies, Arizona Diamondbacks and Red Sox. The six-time All-Star finished with a career record of 216-146 and a 3.46 ERA. His 3,116 strikeouts rank 15th all time. He won two World Series titles with the Red Sox and one with the Diamondbacks.

Red Sox manager John Farrell noted how the use of smokeless tobacco is not prohibited on the big-league level, protected by the players' collective bargaining agreement with Major League Baseball.

"MLB has taken steps to dissuade players from using it through educational programs that are administered to every team," Farrell said. "It's even got to the point [in the minor leagues] now where players can be fined if smokeless tobacco is in view of the general public. There have been some of those warnings and penalties levied on some of our players.

"I think we all recognize that it's addictive and causes cancer. That's proven. [But] at this time, it's upon the player to make the conscious decision for himself to use it or not. All we can do is continue educate guys what the ramifications are. ... On the heels of the unfortunate passing of Tony Gwynn and what Curt is going through, you would think this would be a current beacon for guys to take note that there's a price to be paid, if you're one of the unfortunate ones stricken by cancer."

Related Video