The people in charge of Moffitt Cancer Center's upcoming Men's Health Forum couldn't have picked a better person to open with a few words of welcome than Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller. • The 62-year-old former state lawmaker has survived three bouts of cancer: prostate cancer in 1985 and 2007 and kidney cancer 2005. • Cancer runs in his family. Miller's father died of prostate cancer, his sister died of leukemia, and both his wife and daughter have twice survived cancer. Times staff writer Will Hobson spoke to Miller recently about what he has learned from his health battles, how they've changed his life and what he hopes to accomplish in the second half of his commission term.
What have your personal experiences with cancer taught you about life and health?
When you're younger and you do all these crazy, stupid things, you never think about how important your health is to you. You want to have a lot of money, a fine house, a nice car, but you never think about how important your health is until it hits you like a brick. Then you realize that your health is probably the most important thing God has given you. You start looking at your weight, you start talking about how often you go to the doctor. Prostate cancer takes out a lot of men of color, because they don't go to the doctor and they don't want that exam. The last time I had prostate cancer, my PSA (the level of a protein in a man's blood that could indicate prostate cancer) was very low. The doctor did the rectal exam, and he found it. It changed my life knowing how important screening is. Screening is basically what's keeping me alive.
The Moffitt event traces its roots to the African American Men's Health Forum. What is the importance of an event like this for black men?
A lot of minority men don't have access to health care. Hopefully that will change. By the time they walk into the emergency room, many times it's too late. A lot of men just don't like to go to the doctor. That's why when I speak, I tell the wives, take him to the doctor, make sure he gets checked out.
Has your family ever figured out why you and your relatives have been afflicted with cancer so often? How has being a cancer survivor informed how you supported your daughter and wife as they dealt with it?
After my daughter was diagnosed, she got a genetic test at Moffitt. It turned out we have a gene in our family that is very strong (for contracting cancer). We were among the top four families in the state of Florida for the strength of that gene. As a caretaker, you've got to help them out, every aspect that you can. Everything that they go through you have to go through as well.
Switching gears, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office recently reached out to leaders in the local black community with concerns about activity by local teenagers at the Florida State Fair. Is this an overblown controversy, just kids acting like kids, or are there serious issues that need to be addressed? Was it appropriate for law enforcement to single out the black community?
I don't know if they specifically said the black community (was involved) in a negative way. There were Hispanic kids in there, too. I saw the video; there were African-American and Hispanic kids. Sheriff David Gee felt he needed to identify organizations within the African-American community to reach out to about this. I don't think there was anything wrong about him contacting folks like me. It is what it is. I think that needed to happen, and it started a dialogue in this community to start working on what we can do to curtail that type of activity in the future at the Florida State Fair.
What are the biggest things you want to accomplish on the County Commission over the next year or two?
We're talking about drawing up TIFs (tax-increment financing districts) a little differently to generate more money for certain areas. You take areas like Palm River, we have serious problems. There are so many people down there who don't have access to clean drinking water, believe it or not. I've been dealing with this issue since 2010. If we can get TIFs set up, we could have enough tax dollars to maybe bring the pipelines to the area of Palm River so residents down there can have clean drinking water. That would be great.
No. 2, we have some infrastructure problems. If we don't start tackling these soon, we could have some serious problems. Our infrastructure, piping and roads, is getting old in our city and county. We don't want to have a catastrophe where we are in a bind because we ignored or put something off.
Lastly, libraries. Libraries are important to me because a lot of people don't have access to computers. We're going to have to start looking at some public-private partnerships in the future to fund those things.
Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity.