Dressed in a black tuxedo, Miami-Dade Judge Stanford Blake walked into the lobby of the University of Miami’s Sylvester Cancer Center with his usual gusto. He shook hands, cracked jokes and chatted with the smiling crowd.
“I feel great,” he said. “I shouldn’t feel as great as I do.”
But this time Blake was not holding court in front of a class of law students or a room full of potential jurors. Instead, the judge walked into the hospital early Wednesday to complete his final radiation treatment for tonsil cancer.
The procedure — witnessed by a small group of Blake’s closest friends, including County Judge Joseph Davis and former law partner Bruce Fleisher — was anything but clinical. Blake turned it into an upbeat occasion designed to raise awareness about the risk that oral cancer poses for men.
After the final treatment, Blake rang a bell inside a waiting room, a tradition at the center for patients who have beat cancer.
“When I was in criminal court, I had to hand out the death sentence,” said Blake, his voice still creaky from the treatments. “This is not a death sentence.”
At 67, Blake is a widely admired figure in Miami-Dade’s legal community. He was elected and took the bench in 1995. One year later, he donated a kidney to his brother for successful transplant surgery.
For nine years, Blake served as the chief administrative judge over the criminal division, presiding over a string of high-profile trials. They included the trials of Christopher Sutton, convicted in 2010 of ordering the assassination of his prominent lawyer father; Maria Catabay, convicted in the burglary that led to the slaying of a well-known Coral Gables doctor; and ex-FBI agent John Connolly, convicted in 2008 for a gangland Miami murder.
In 2009, Blake moved to the family division, where he continues to preside over divorce cases and other family disputes.
It was in late December that Blake noticed a swelling in his right side of his throat. His girlfriend, Lisa Goldberg, insisted he check it out.
“I said, ‘Stan, I don’t like it,’” Goldberg recalled. “The doctor knew right away what it was.”
Blake was diagnosed with cancer in the tonsil, a malady caused by the HPV virus, which for women can cause cervical cancer.
Oral cancer does not have the same public awareness as breast or prostate cancer. Actor Michael Douglas became a leading activist for raising awareness after his diagnosis for tongue cancer in 2010. In men, the HPV-related cancer in the tonsil or tongue is often contracted through oral sex.
Over the past 20 years, there has been a 200-plus percent increase in reported cases of oral cancer caused by HPV, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University. It was for that reason that Blake volunteered to participate in a national study on treatment for his cancer.
Blake immediately had a sophisticated “trans robotic” surgery to remove the growth. In all, Blake — wearing a special mask — completed 33 radiation treatments, each less than 10 minutes. He also completed five chemotherapy sessions.
“Judge Blake is unique, the most upbeat patient I can remember,” said Dr. Michael Samuels, a radiation oncologist. “Nothing we can do to him can get him down.”
In all, the months of treatment drained him physically. He lost about 18 pounds. For long stretches, he could barely talk. He jokes that he sounded like Pee Wee Herman.
“In the beginning, I had to enunciate clearly and slow down because my brain was thinking, but the words weren’t coming out the right way,” Blake said. “And as you know, I like to talk.”
On Wednesday, he donned a tuxedo that barely fit anymore. As Blake walked through the hall of the hospital — just one block away from his old digs at Miami’s criminal courthouse — staffers lit up.
“How handsome!” one nurse said.
After the final session, Blake emerged, still holding the large mesh mask in front of his face — a keepsake to take home. “What’s everyone here for?” he joked.
Blake hopes to return to the bench on June 1.