Merck recruits football star Jim Kelly to help head-and-neck cancer patients craft their 'game plans'

Merck has teamed up with football great Jim Kelly on its latest awareness campaign.

Merck & Co. has a plan for boosting its immuno-oncology treatment, Keytruda, in head-and-neck cancer. And it relies on patients making plans of their own.

The New Jersey-based pharma giant has teamed up with Pro Football Hall of Famer and head-and-neck cancer survivor Jim Kelly for a new awareness campaign, “Your Cancer Game Plan.” The effort focuses on encouraging patients and their loved ones to craft support strategies, taking into account their emotional, nutritional and communication needs.

The particularities of head-and-neck cancer can hit patients both physically and emotionally. The disease sometimes hinders their ability to talk, triggers changes in their facial features or makes it difficult to eat, a Merck spokesperson explained in an email interview.

“Having a ‘game plan’ can help patients and their support teams be prepared for those kinds of challenges and complexities,” the spokesperson said.

Kelly, for his part, knows those “special challenges” firsthand. “My experience taught me so much about the importance of emotional support and taking care of myself, and I hope that by sharing my experience, I can inspire others to take action and know their game plan,” he said in a statement.

Merck first won FDA approval for its cancer star Keytruda in the disease back in August, and until now its patient-education activities have centered on providing information through the Keytruda product website and patient brochures. Going forward, the company’s goal is to continue the new awareness campaign “for some time,” the spokesperson said.

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Meanwhile, Keytruda has a new competitor on the head-and-neck cancer scene, though it’s a familiar foe. Bristol-Myers Squibb’s Opdivo won its own head-and-neck indication in November, kicking up to three the number of cancer types in which the two meds compete.

While that number is growing—U.S. regulators recently granted Keytruda a breakthrough designation in second-line bladder cancer, for one, and Opdivo won an approval this month—Keytruda already has a lead in the all-important non-small cell lung cancer battle. In January, Merck surprised the market with a first-line filing for its Keytruda-chemo combo, an approval which would cement its No. 1 position.