By Brenda Maguire
For Journal Register News Service
At the age of 42, Ken Miller had to tell his grandparents, parents and four children that he had been diagnosed with cancer because of one decision he made at the age of 15.
That decision was to chew tobacco with his friends, and it was one small decision which led to 27 years of smokeless tobacco use.
On May 17, the American Cancer Society and Relay For Life had Miller visit Twin Valley Middle School to talk to students about the consequences of chewing tobacco. He shared his experience with throat and tongue cancer.
“Do you know how hard it is for a Daddy to see their daughter cry?” he asked the students after explaining what it was like having to confront his loved ones about his cancer.
Meredith Zolty, who started the mini-Relay for Life for Twin Valley (a Relay program that runs through the Elementary schools) introduced the assembly and explained to the students what exactly dip, chew and snuff are.
She told the children that it is not simply about “saying no to smoking” anymore, because the tobacco companies created these products as a way to circumvent regulations on smoking.
Miller, who is the assistant head coach and offensive coordinator for the indoor football team the Harrisburg Stampede, was diagnosed with cancer in April 2010. He was declared cancer free in December of the same year.
“It just took,” Miller said of the chemotherapy and radiation.
Miller reflected back to his first day of chemotherapy when he told his wife that not only would he fight the cancer in his body, but also once he was cancer free he would continue fighting it by talking to children.
“Young kids don’t understand,” Miller, now 44, said. “I never had anyone tell me ‘Kenny, you shouldn’t do this.’”
While he had cancer, Miller underwent radiation treatments, which had devastating effects on his muscles and organs. He lost taste buds and lymph nodes, and had to have three teeth pulled without the use of Novocain.
“That alone right there should tell you kids not to smoke or chew,” he said.
He continued to tell students that he went four months without being able to eat solid food. During that time, he was only able to swallow water and had a tube in his stomach so that he could get proper nutrients into his body.
Miller had to relearn to speak and said that his vocal chords are still not completely stable.
“I may have this high pitch voice for the rest of my life, but that’s okay because I’m alive.”
Following chemotherapy treatments, Miller suffered indigestion. He also had a constant feeling as though he was going to throw up for three days straight following treatments.
In addition to the many effects the radiation and chemotherapy had on Miller, he also estimates that he spent $30,000 on tobacco in his lifetime. He noted that looking back; he should have spent it on a fancy car instead.
Miller spoke of how at the age of 15 he never would have thought that he would have four kids at the age of 42 and would need to tell them he had cancer. He urged the students to think that way when they make a decision.
He kept reiterating the fact that having cancer was “all because I made a bad decision in high school.”
Although the students are not at that age yet, Miller kept reminding them that they are only a few years away from making these kinds of decisions.
“There’s going to be a lot of decisions you need to make,” he said. “Make the decisions you have to make and you’ll do good.”
Miller also urged the students to talk to a parent or other loved one that uses tobacco about the dangers of the substance.
At the end of the assembly, students from the Twin Valley Middle School Leo Club presented Miller with a check made out to the American Cancer Society for $500, money that was raised at the school during Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Miller feels it is important for students to learn about the effects of smokeless tobacco from someone who lived it rather than just through a textbook because it hits home that way.
“They don’t have to suffer the way I did,” he said. “If I can just get them to think about it at their age.”
“Only great things can happen from things that happened today,” he added.
Following the assembly, children came up to Miller to thank him for speaking to them. Some students told him about a parent who smokes, others asked for handshakes, one student even asked Miller for a hug.
In addition to coaching football and speaking to children about tobacco, Miller also does work in Harrisburg speaking to state legislatures about the risks of tobacco. Students were asked to sign a poster that said “Just spit it out,” for Miller to bring to Harrisburg with him.
The American Cancer Society’s Relay For Life will be held from June 15 at 12 p.m. to June 16 at 12 p.m. To find out more information and to sign up a team go to www.relayforlife.org/patwinvalley.