Survivor Spotlight: Toni Renna
Toni Renna Finds Proton Therapy for Lung Cancer through a Caring Friend
Toni Renna and her husband Ronald live in The Villages in Central Florida. They are surrounded by friends and a supportive community. It was the fortune of having a friend who had treated his prostate cancer with proton therapy at the UF Health Proton Therapy Institute that would change Toni’s own battle with lung cancer.
Lung cancer diagnosis
Toni was diagnosed with stage one lung cancer in July 2023 after her new doctor suggested that she should have a CAT scan due to her history as a smoker. The first scan in 2021 showed a small nodule on her right lung. Her doctor recommended that they just watch it and follow up annually. In 2023, they noticed an increase in the size of the nodule. It was decided that she needed a PET scan, which was inconclusive. A needle biopsy was ordered, and cancer was discovered. It was found early and was stage one.
“For those who have gone through cancer, you know what a punch in the gut these three words are: ‘YOU HAVE CANCER!’ Yet, we were determined to confront this together, [referring to her husband]” explains Toni.
Toni and Ronald first met with an oncologist in The Villages who recommended surgery to remove the lower right lobe of her lung.
“We couldn’t understand why something so small (the size of a pea) would take major surgery,” said Toni. So, they started looking for other options.
Treatment options – thanks to friends
“Fortunately, we are thankful to have the most wonderful friends here in our neighborhood - Chris and Susi Helme. Chris told us to check out the UF Health Proton Therapy Institute in Jacksonville,” Toni said.
Chris was previously treated for stage four prostate cancer at the Institute and is now five years cancer free and doing well. After treatment, Chris chose to be a Proton Ambassador, with the goal of sharing his experience with proton therapy with others who might need it.
“I have had probably 40 or 50 folks contact me over the past four years as an ambassador and have also talked to many more at The Villages’ prostate cancer support group about the advantages of proton therapy. So, when I found out Toni had lung cancer, I told her and Ron to get to Jacksonville ASAP,” said Chris.
The Renna’s and the Helme’s are great friends – going on cruises and trips to Las Vegas together. Ron and Chris even play golf and a neighborhood poker game every week. “I was very invested that Toni get the best possible treatment available,” added Chris.
The Renna’s reached out to the Institute in Jacksonville and heard back right away. They received an email and a packet of information and paperwork to start the process.
In the meantime, they met with another surgeon in Ocala who explained the option of surgery in more detail. The results of a lung capacity test from the pulmonologist would tell them if a wedge of her lung would be cut out or if the whole lobe of the lung would need to be removed. Still hesitant to undergo surgery on her lung, Toni asked this surgeon what he knew about proton therapy. The surgeon thought she would be a good candidate for proton therapy as a good friend that he had gone to medical school with worked as a radiation oncologist and had proton therapy experience. Toni remarks that he recommended two proton centers and said, “Whoever calls you back first, go there.”
“Well, I am not sure if you believe in the power of prayer or not, but we do. Because within five minutes of leaving the surgeon’s office, the phone rang. It was the UF Health Proton Therapy Institute asking if we could come up for an appointment in two days,” said Toni.
Toni and Ronald met with Romaine Charles Nichols, Jr., MD, one of the radiation oncologists specializing in treating lung cancer at the Institute in Jacksonville. Dr. Nichols agreed that proton therapy was a good option for Toni to limit the dose of radiation to the surrounding healthy lung tissue, as well as to reduce the amount of radiation to the heart. Keeping high doses of radiation from healthy cells may greatly reduce the side effects that people may experience during radiation treatment. Thanks to proton therapy, this is now possible. Find out more about the benefits of proton therapy for lung cancer.
Toni and Ronald felt so confident with their discussion with Dr. Nichols and his team that they decided to move forward with proton therapy immediately. After her consultation appointment, Toni began the treatment planning process that day at the UF Health Proton Therapy Institute. The financial counseling team helped with the insurance approval process. Two weeks later, Toni and Ronald came to Jacksonville to start her proton therapy treatments.
Toni also received the good news that, based on his experience and current research, Dr. Nichols recommended a short course of proton therapy. For Toni, this meant eleven daily treatments, rather than the standard 25-30 days of treatment. Find out more about the option to treat lung cancer in fewer treatments.
Traveling for proton therapy
Toni and Ronald decided to stay in Jacksonville, Monday through Friday, at the Homewood Suites at the St. Johns Town Center where they were able to enjoy great restaurants and shopping. “I did all my Christmas shopping for my three granddaughters!” said Toni.
Since her treatments were in the mid-afternoon, they were able to easily head home for the weekend. All of this made the experience of traveling for cancer treatment so much easier.
Today, Toni is a Proton Ambassador, and her husband Ron is a Caregiver Ambassador. They are ready to help others as they research their cancer treatment options.
“If it were not for Chris telling us about this procedure, our options would have been very limited. We are now sharing this information with everyone to let them know about the UF Health Proton Therapy Institute, which has been open for the past seventeen years. They treat twenty-two different types of cancer including childhood cancers,” said Toni.
Back at home, their giving spirit continues. Each year, Toni and Ronald Renna host a Thanksgiving food drive for their community in The Villages. This year, they got off to a late start as they dealt with Toni’s diagnosis and treatment of lung cancer. However, despite these difficult times, their community still managed to provide 240 food baskets including turkeys to families.