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Curt Schilling to D&C on battle with cancer: ‘I’ve never said ‘Why me?’ and I never will’

08.20.14 at 8:52 am ET
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Curt Schilling is in remission from cancer and warning against the use of chewing tobacco. (WEEI.com)

Curt Schilling is in remission from cancer and warning against the use of chewing tobacco. (WEEI.com)

Former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, who is in remission after receiving treatment earlier this year for squamous cell carcinoma, joined the WEEI/NESN Jimmy Fund Radio-Telethon on Wednesday morning to tell his story publicly for the first time and warn against using chewing tobacco, which he blames for his situation. To hear the interview, go to the Dennis & Callahan audio on demand page.

Schilling, who had weighed slightly over 200 pounds prior to his diagnosis, lost 75 pounds during his treatment, mainly because he could not swallow. He also has lost his ability to taste and smell.

“This all came about from a dog bite,” he explained on his visit to the Dennis & Callahan show. “I got bitten by a dog and I had some damage to my finger and I went to see a doctor. And the day 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. I knew immediately it wasn’t normal. There happened to be an ENT [ear, nose and throat specialist] right next door to the hand doctor. I thought, ‘What the heck, let me just stop in and see.’ So I waited in the office, went in there and he did a biopsy. Two days later, he diagnosed me with squamous cell carcinoma.”

Schilling, who still is recovering from his business troubles following the well-publicized collapse of his video game company, recalled the immediate aftermath of his diagnosis as a moment of self-awareness.

“You know what the amazing thing was, and I was just dumfounded by it: You’ve just been told you have cancer, and you walk out into the public, and the world’s still going on. It was really a challenge to wrap my head around that,” said Schilling, who relies heavily on his religious faith. “My second thought was, ‘Wow, really? You think I can handle this, too, huh?’ ”

Schilling was in the hospital for about six months, in part because he developed additional problems, including a staph infection.

“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. This could be one of my kids,” he 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.”

During his playing days, Schilling was known for his efforts to connect with young cancer patients. Now he’s seen it from the other side, and he has a greater appreciation for what they go through.

“When you walk around that facility you see these amazing doctors doing amazing things,” Schilling said. “And then you turn the corner and see a 5-, 6-, 7-year-old kid. I can’t fathom — if this happened again, I’m not sure if I would go through the treatment again, it was that painful. I can’t imagine a 5-, 6-year-old kid having that. It s just mind-boggling.”

Schilling used chewing tobacco for three decades, something he now greatly regrets.

“I’ll go to my grave believing that was why I got what I got,” he said. “Absolutely. No question in my mind about that. … I do believe without a doubt, unquestionably, that chewing is what gave me cancer.”

Added Schilling: “I’m not going to sit up here from the pedestal and preach about chewing. I will say this: I did it for about 30 years. It was an addictive habit, I can think about 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 I was in going through this treatment, the second or third day, it was the first thing and the only thing in my life that I’ve ever had that I wish I could go back and never have dipped. Not once. It was so painful.”

Dana-Farber medical oncologist Dr. Robert Haddad, who joined Schilling for the interview, supported his patient’s assertion about the dangers of chewing tobacco.

“One of the well-described and defined risks for oral cancer is smokeless tobacco, which is what we’re talking about here,” Haddad said. “It is not a question mark. This has been shown repeatedly, and the National Cancer Institute clearly makes the case that any form of tobacco is harmful and should not be used.”

Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington, who joined D&C later in the morning, acknowledged the league-wide problem with tobacco use, which was in the spotlight following the June death of Padres Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn.

“Unfortunately, as we know, sometimes it takes something bad happening to really raise awareness to a level where change happens,” Cherington said. “I think unfortunately, we’ve seen that perhaps starting with this generation of ballplayers — Tony Gwynn‘s situation, and Curt, and there will probably be others. Those are awful situations; I guess the silver lining is that you start seeing players come out publicly saying, ‘I’m giving this up.’ And we’ve seen that in the wake of what happened with Tony.

“It’s a hard thing to hear [about Schilling], because we all remember watching him — it wasn’t that long ago — watching him on the mound, doing what he did and helping us win a World Series.”

Added Cherington: “Unfortunately, sometimes there’s a better chance of change when something traumatic like this happens. Hopefully that will be the case.”

Schilling said one of the reasons he initially was hesitant to publicly discuss his cancer was because he wasn’t ready to become a central figure in the discussion about tobacco use. Despite being aware of the dangers, he continued to use tobacco throughout his playing career, and he said, “I did it for 30 years. I didn’t want to appear hypocritical.”

“Even though I’ve seen and talked to people who had half a face, who lost their bottom jaw, who lost all their teeth … At some point you just stop thinking about it,” he said. “Because I never said, ‘That won’t be me, that won’t be me.’ It’s everybody, if you do it. It’s a byproduct of chewing tobacco. If you chew tobacco, you’re going to find yourself with some sort of cancer, if you don’t die another way.”

Schilling knows his battle is far from over, although the prognosis is encouraging.

“I’m in remission,” he said. “Doc and I are going to be meeting each other on and off for the next five years. Recovery is a challenge. 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. And there’s no guarantee they’ll come back.”

Said Haddad: “Without discussing the specific case of Curt Schilling, head and neck cancers, or cancers of the mouth, these are treatable cancers, they are curable cancers in a large percentage of patients. But the treatment is very tough, it’s very grueling.”

Read More: ben cherington, Curt Schilling, Jimmy Fund Radio-Telethon, Robert Haddad
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