On the football field, Dallas Cowboy Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman had to deal with the consequences of concussions and back injuries.
However, it was off the gridiron where he perhaps had his biggest health battle.
That was in 1998 when he learned he had a small but malignant melanoma growth on his shoulder.
Aikman was lucky. His skin cancer was treated quickly and he’s had no recurrence since then.
As this year’s Super Bowl approaches, Aikman is serving as a paid spokesman for Novartis and their “Melanoma Just Got Personal” campaign to raise awareness for treatment of the deadly skin cancer.
In an interview with Healthline at one of this year’s Super Bowl venues in San Francisco, the three-time Super Bowl winner discussed melanoma as well as concerns over concussions suffered by former football players like himself.
The Melanoma Scare
Aikman was drying off after taking a shower when he noticed the small growth on his shoulder in 1998.
He showed the blemish to his dermatologist and a week later learned it was stage II malignant melanoma.
“To me, it didn’t really register,” he said. “I didn’t know what that meant.”
Aikman’s doctor simply cut out the growth from his shoulder. That did the trick. He didn’t require any radiation or other treatment.
Since then, Aikman has gone to his doctor every six months for a thorough examination of his skin. He’s had a few suspicious growths “frozen off,” but no other melanoma spots have been found.
Because of his diligence with check-ups, Aikman doesn’t really worry about a recurrence — a post-treatment fear suffered by a lot of cancer survivors.
But he acknowledges how easily that 1998 growth could have turned deadly.
“I wonder sometimes what would have happened if it had been in the middle of my back and I hadn’t been able to see it when I dried off. That’s the highly unnerving part of it all,” Aikman said.
It would seem Aikman is almost a poster boy for preventative care when it comes to melanoma. Indeed, he does say it’s important to catch the disease early and to take measures such as applying sunscreen to prevent skin cancer.
However, the “Melanoma Just Got Personal” campaign is focused on people with advanced melanoma.
The message is that melanoma is different for each person. The campaign emphasizes that patients should know what type of malignant growth they have and what treatments are available.
Aikman said this is particularly true because of the advancements made the past five years on melanoma treatment.
“There’s no question in my mind that people have gone to the [campaign] website, they’ve learned things, and they’re taking steps and receiving treatment that will save lives,” he said.
Impact of Football Injuries
The more serious threat to Aikman’s future health may not be melanoma. It may be the injuries he experienced on the football field.
Aikman played football at UCLA from 1986 to 1988 and then was the quarterback for the Cowboys from 1989 until he retired in 2000.
Since 2001, he has been a color commentator for Fox Sports on pro football games.
Aikman estimates he suffered six or seven concussions during his football career in addition to back injuries that eventually prompted his retirement.
In recent years, there has been debate over the long-term brain injuries that athletes can suffer from repeated blows to the head.
This past week, it was revealed that former Oakland Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., when he died of colon cancer last July.
Aikman, 49, said he doesn’t worry too much that brain damage is in his future. He says he shows no symptoms of that type of disease and he is quite healthy for his age.
He said players like offensive and defensive linemen are the ones who get their heads banged a lot more often during games.
The National Football League (NFL) has taken steps to improve player safety. These include restrictions on helmet-to-helmet contact and hitting players like quarterbacks and receivers when they are in vulnerable positions.
Aikman thinks the league has done what it can to improve safety.
“I think the league has done about all it can do within the rules of the game,” he said.
Aikman said a bigger problem is the Thursday night games the NFL has instituted. That requires players to take the field just four days after a Sunday afternoon game.
“That is not in the best interest of player safety,” he said.
That assertion received some support this week from a study that concludes the brain can recover from injury if it’s given enough time to rest.
Aikman said the good news for players today is that there is much more information available on the physical consequences of playing a contact sport, such as football. The transparency can help athletes, parents, and children make informed decisions.
“The advances in our understanding have helped all of these people make a decision on whether this is something they want to continue to do,” he said.
Aikman has two teenage daughters, so the prospects are slim that one of his children will play recreational football.
However, Aikman said if he had a son he would let him play football if the boy chose to, but he wouldn’t encourage his son to play if he didn’t have the desire.
Aikman said football is still a great game that provided him with enormous opportunity, and it taught him a lot about himself and life.
“I hate that our sport is kind of where it’s at because I think it turns boys into men in a lot of ways,” he said. “But the concerns are real. I certainly understand that.”