Rolling Out

Tony Hill on overcoming prostate cancer and advocating for early detection

Munson Steed and Tony Hill delve into the crucial role of PHEN in promoting prostate health education and early detection among African American men on Health IQ.
Former Florida state Senator Tony Hill is a fighter for the working people, a public servant, a veteran of the United States Army, and a devoted Christian. Born in Jacksonville on Sept. 9, 1957, Hill served in the United States Army before being honorably discharged. As a longtime labor leader, Hill served as the Executive Board Member of ILA Local 1408 and as the Secretary Treasurer of the Florida AFL-CIO. He was elected to represent Jacksonville in the Florida House of Representatives from 1992 to 2000 and the Florida Senate from 2002 to 2011. He served as the Federal Policy Director for Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown from 2011 to 2015. Starting in 2019, Hill has worked on the staff of U.S. Representative Al Lawson and helped thousands of constituents in Congressional District 5 connect with federal agencies, such as Veteran Affairs, HUD, and the IRS in Washington, D.C.

He has received the Lester Granger Award from the Montford Point Marine Association, Inc., and the Public Official Award of the Year from the Children’s Home Society in Jacksonville in 2010. That same year, Hill was honored with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Public Service Award.

Hill has been married to Patricia Hill for 17 years. He is the proud father of four children, grandfather of 11, and great-grandfather of one. Hill is a graduate of Jean Ribault Senior High School in Jacksonville. He attended the National Labor College in Silver Spring, Md., earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in labor studies. Hill is a Life Member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. (Theta Phi Chapter) and holds other prestigious honors including Chair of the NAACP Florida State Conferences.

He is a longstanding member of the Greater Macedonia Baptist Church, where he founded the Men’s Usher Board, serves as a deacon, and teaches Sunday school. His legacy of service is a testament to his faith and a symbol of his desire to inspire by actively pouring into the lives of others.

Munson Steed: Hey, ladies and gentlemen, this is Munson Steed, and welcome to another episode of Health IQ, where we bring the most intelligent, the most experienced individuals to share their experience with us, their information and their subject matter experts on ending health disparities, and giving us a perspective on how we can preserve life inside our community. Today, I’m proud to bring one, the only, my brother who truly has experience in this area, Tony Hill. How are you?

Tony Hill: I’m doing great, Brother Munson, doing great.

MS: When we think of prostate health as black men, where should our conversation begin? And at what age should we really begin to talk to each other as accountable brothers to one another?

TH: Well, first of all, I want to thank you for allowing me to come on, and also represent PHEN, Prostate Health Education Network, which is led by Thomas Farrington out of Massachusetts. We have been in a series of conversations this week with some other groups in this health space of prostate cancer. The first thing I would say to you, brother Steed is early detection leads to directions, and a lot of times, African American men are somewhat disconnected from telling their story.

I was on the advocacy side as a representative in Tallahassee for over 17 years in the House, nine years in the Senate, and so this had become a passion for me. But, as we say in church, you can’t have a testimony unless you have a test. So in 2019, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. And so, we have been on this journey for 20 plus years, and we’re trying to educate black men starting around 40 years of concentration on early detection. 

And when you go to the doctor, take your own health and put it out front, sort of like what I did about 20 years ago, when I decided to become a vegetarian. I told life, “Get behind. I’m gonna be in charge.” And so, with that we got engaged with several people from the pharmacy side of the house. Dr. Odetta and other folks that have been championing this cause, and we have been on the battlefield for now 20 plus years, but in terms of a survivor, five years.

MS: Well, thanks for that and your continued courage to be honest with others about surviving cancer. Let’s talk about misconceptions, because there are several misconceptions, as it relates to prostate cancer, and PHEN is there to kind of dispel and give a resource for those brothers who are in any stage, or could have a father or an uncle going through the idea of prostate cancer and its effects on black men.

TH: So, what I would say to you Brother Munson, is that PHEN is the leading advocate, the leading voice in our community, when it comes to early detection, education, and other opportunities once a person is diagnosed. PHEN stands for Prostate Health Education Network. Brother Farrington has assembled what we call ambassadors from around the country that have been affected by this. We’ve had opportunities, and I’m on the policy side of that issue by virtue of being in the legislature. But a lot of the other gentlemen that are ambassadors are coming from different perspectives. 

Some are coming from advocacy. Some are coming from the fundraising side of it. Some of them are coming from survival mode, and we have put this group together of African American men that is… I want to say we are invested in this conversation because it affects us the most. Starting at age 40 and going on up. I was in a meeting this morning with a gentlemen as old as 70, James Daniels, 77. Other guys, 62. I will be 67 in September, and so everyone has gone through a different process. 

Some have gone through what we call radiation. Some have gone where they have taken the whole prostate out. Some have gone from a holistic perspective, in other words, fruits and vegetables. And so, we’ve had people go across a mural of venues in terms of dealing with prostate cancer. Now, next Friday we’ll be in Quincy, Fla., which is next door to Tallahassee, where we will be talking with the Sons of Allen. This is a statewide group within the 12 episcopal district of the AME Church. 

And of course, we know that Richard Allen was the first African American to break away from a white segment of groups of people and started the AME church. So, they have what we call Sons of Allen, and we’re on the program on Friday. They are having a retreat. My understanding is that they will come in on Thursday, and they will culminate in Saturday afternoon so they could be back in the house of worship on Sunday. 

But this is the first organized group that PHEN has been able to penetrate and get in. Hopefully, we’ll be able to get into some other church organizations — not saying that we are not in those. But this is in terms of a governing body of a specific faith. The AME Church has opened their arms to us and we’re going in, and we’re going to just be blunt, and we’re going to be honest with them, and then we’re going to try to develop some ambassadors out of that group.

MS: When you think about the change of diet, why is it important? And how do you think it has helped your both recovery and health?

TH: Well, back about 22 years ago, I became a vegetarian. ‘Cause I was on the advocate’s side of it, and I was under the assumption that if I stop eating red meat then I probably would not attract it. But then we have to also realize that we do have a DNA, and in our DNA sometimes it is hereditary that we will probably come across it because of our parents. For example, the first thing when you go into the doctor’s office, they said, do you have diabetes? Do you have hypertension? All these different other segments that when they look at us, they already prejudge us before we even open our mouth. 

But I would say to you that dieting is a point of reference for us in this battle. Eating healthy, not smoking, not drinking, but because that will lead to other cancer attractions. And so, 20 some years ago, I maybe even slowed down the process of being diagnosed because I was really shocked and taken back when I went to the doctor. I went because of some health fairs. Don’t want to discourage people from going to health fairs, church events around health and went back to my primary care doctor at that time. 

He said, “I’m thinking you’re showing some trends here because you went from 0 to 1.2 or point 3.” I wanna tell you, Brother Steed, it had got to the point that I was at 14 on my PSA level. Fourteen! And I was going to a urologist and he was saying, we’re gonna monitor this thing. And so, a lot of times if you are dealing in this space, and you are of course African American, and you’re going to a majority doctor or another foreign doctor, a lot of times, they want to weigh you out the options that you have. Even though we tell people early detection leads to different directions. 

Well, mine had got up to 14, and in some cases people who looking at some abnormally in terms of their numbers. Because you can have a rectal exam where your primary care doctor will kind of tell you to bend over, and then he’ll take some latex gloves and put on, and he’ll grease it up. ‘Cause I want you to know Brother Steed, real men and I ain’t scared of the finger. But anyway, he would kind of smooth over your prostate, rub over, and if there’s some lumps or something, then he will probably say, you need to go to a urologist. 

In my case, it was an oncologist and the oncologist is the one, when I went to him he said, “We don’t have to look at anymore tests. We don’t have to look at any more diagrams. We’re gonna give you what your options are.” I’m glad I was able to switch out a pivot from a urologist to an oncologist, and he gave me one of the best options that I could have, which is seed implant, and then from there we had chemo, I mean, not chemo. A radio diagnosis and we went through that for about 22 weeks of treatment and I even kept a note of that information and wrote it down each day I went to the to get that treatment.

MS: Thanks for sharing that and I do believe the real men aren’t afraid of the finger. But real men aren’t afraid to check on their health on a regular basis, and you should at least, if you’re watching this, have a brother in your life, who challenges you, and will advocate with you and go with you if need be, to visit your doctor or physician. You don’t have to be alone. PHEN is there. They have access. They have groups. I really appreciate that. 

Obviously, at my age, I’ve gone both and the interesting thing was one of the doctors I’ve had, physician, Black physician. He said, well, no, don’t be afraid of a finger. Because you might miss something with just a blood test. So, I think we need to understand that there is a rationale to both, and that you should know your numbers. I think if you have no idea what the number should be, then ask your physician so that we can begin to really know the numbers. 

Lastly, when you think about that emotionally, how do you manage through this process? Now you’ve got cancer and in the prostate. So now you’re thinking what? And I haven’t been through that moment but obviously my father, who got it at 84. It does say something about my DNA, that the possibilities of me having to experience this are undeniable. Could miss me, but could not. Given the history that I know of both my maternal and paternal parents.

TH: Well, I would say to you that in that space though, Brother Steed. Because I was an advocate I could kind of navigate and connect some dots together, and had I not been engaged in this in the policy side of the house, then, I probably would have broken down. But I will say to you that when I noticed that I had prostate cancer, the first thing that came out of my mouth was, “Why me?” I said, “I’ve been doing all the right things. Went to a vegetarian, stop eating red meat, and just stop eating meat period. I don’t eat any meat.”

I still was able to contract it, and go through the process of what we call the test. So, I could have a testimony, because it was easier for me to advocate and then but I’ve turned it down from advocate to two other words — advocate, commemorate, and celebrate. So, I advocated for a period of time. Then I came back and commemorated it because I had to go through it, so I had to tell people what I went through, and then at the end, you hear people say they ring the bell. 

Well, I celebrate. And so with that, God gave me another opportunity to to broadcast this, even though in Florida we have term limits. And so, this is just another stage and another period of time that we’re in, that we can continue to advocate but also commemorate what happened, and then tell people, if you go through that process you’ll be able to celebrate.

MS: Well, I’m gonna thank you Brother Hill for you, and what PHEN are doing to change the lives, and save the lives of so many Black men in this country. It is important that all of us share this video. Share it with your brothers and sisters so that we can address this issue and change the direction of how this cancer is impacting. And young black men, if you’re a young adult, I say 35, some say 40, but I think if you don’t know your PSA numbers by the time you are 35 as a black male, you might be missing an opportunity. It’s like any other number. It’s one that you should know. I wanna thank you, Brother Hill, for coming on Health IQ here on rolling out.

TH: Thank you.

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