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Baseball great Curt Schilling blames years of chewing tobacco for his oral cancer, an announcement that health advocates hope will call attention to the dangers of a habit common in many ballplayers.

Schilling, 47, announced Wednesday that he has been treated for squamous cell carcinoma and that he believes the cancer is "without a doubt, unquestionably" the result of 30 years of chewing tobacco. Schilling says the habit caused a number of health problems — from gum damage to losing his sense of smell and taste — but none of these was enough to make him quit.

The pain of cancer therapy finally made him "wish I could go back and never have dipped. Not once. It was so painful."

Schilling: It started with a dog bite

This year, Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn succumbed to salivary-gland cancer at age 54. Gwynn, too, attributed his illness to smokeless tobacco use.

"The experience of Tony Gwynn and Curt Schilling sends a powerful message about the risk that chewing tobacco poses to the health of players," says Vince Willmore, spokesman for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. "It sets a terrible example to young fans."

Though pinpointing the precise cause of an individual's cancer is difficult, research has long shown that both smoking and smokeless tobacco can cause oral cancer, esophageal cancer and pancreatic cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute.

"Smokeless tobacco contains nicotine and is very addictive," Willmore says.

Tobacco-related cancers are often deadly. The five-year survival rate for cancers of the oral cavity and pharynx – the part of the throat just behind the nose and mouth – is 62%, according to the American Cancer Society. About 42,440 of these cancers are diagnosed every year, and 8,390 people die from them.

After Gwynn's death, the American Cancer Society and other health groups called on Major League Baseball to ban tobacco use at ballparks and on camera.

Len Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical officer at the American Cancer Society, says he hopes Major League Baseball will find a way to make something good come out of these two players' diagnoses.

"We want some lessons to come from this," Lichtenfeld says. "This is a serious problem and one that needs to be addressed."

The tobacco industry has been promoting new forms of smokeless tobacco – from types of snuff to dissolvable products and lozenges that look like mints – to allow people to consume tobacco even in smoke-free areas, Willmore says. The industry runs ads for these products in sports magazines popular with kids, which may explain why 15% of high school boys use smokeless tobacco. According to the Federal Trade Commission, the tobacco industry spent a total of $451.7 million on advertising and promotion for smokeless tobacco in 2011.

Cancer prevention advocates say they hope Schilling's announcement will discourage people from using any type of tobacco.

Schilling's wife, Shonda, has long been a cancer prevention advocate. She was diagnosed with melanoma in 2001 and later founded the Shade Foundation to promote skin cancer prevention.

"We wish Curt Schilling all the best in his recovery," Willmore says, "and appreciate him speaking out."

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