Tony Rentas: A ‘Soldado’ Helping Others Fight Battles Against Brain Tumors

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Growing up in Puerto Rico, Tony Rentas dreamed of joining the U.S. military. He wanted to serve his country, set a good example for his son, and make sure his family was taken care of.

In 2009, he joined the U.S. Army, making his dream a reality.

Tony served as a military intelligence specialist. Over a dozen years, he deployed twice, traveled around the world, made great friends, experienced different cultures, helped people, and provided for his family.

Then he got some harrowing news.

After suffering a temporal lobe seizure, Tony – a husband and father of two children –was diagnosed with a low grade glioma, a type of cancerous brain tumor, in June 2020.

“I remember walking out of that appointment, sitting in the car, just trying to process things. A couple of tears coming down,” he said.

Cancer would change Tony’s life – but also opened a new path to helping others.

Receiving the Diagnosis

Tony began experiencing symptoms as early as 2015 while stationed in Fort Huachuca, Arizona.

“I kept on having déjà vu, the moving back and forward, the lip smacking, the smell, I was like, ‘Man, what is it?’ I just kept ignoring it and ignoring it, you know, like, losing the train of thought. That’s when all those temporal lobe seizures started happening,” Tony said.

Once he was transferred to Fort Drum, New York, Tony began speaking with a doctor.

Tony Rentas brain cancer survivor low grade glioma
Tony Rentas

After an MRI, Tony was told that he could have a small tumor that should be monitored.

“Out of ignorance, I was like, ‘Is it growing? Do I have to worry about it? No? Alright.’ And I kept on moving with my career,” Tony said.

Tony wasn’t worried about his condition until years later when, on a deployment to Kosovo, he experienced another temporal lobe seizure.

Seizures can be a symptom for many things. They can happen from high salt of sugar in the blood, high fever of illness, brain injury, or brain tumors.

So, when Tony returned to his station in Naples, Italy, doctors performed an MRI and sent the results to a neurologist at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.

“I didn’t think it was going to be a big deal, but when the doctor called me like, ‘Hey, I need to see you in person.’ And then he showed me the MRI, the last one to the new one. I’m like, alright, yeah, it’s grown a little,” Tony recalled.

The neurologist informed Tony that it could be a low grade glioma. Later, after a craniotomy, it was diagnosed as a grade 2 astrocytoma.

Adult astrocytomas are a cancerous type of low grade glioma, accounting for about 1,500 new diagnoses each year, according to the American Brain Tumor Association (ABTA).

And while a grade 2 brain tumor is considered low grade – tending to grow more slowly – some can be aggressive and invade surrounding tissues.

Following his diagnosis, Tony would begin to process the situation. With tears in his eyes, Tony couldn’t yet imagine how his life would change, but he was ready to get started.

“Like, alright, brain tumor. Let’s get it out, you know,” Tony said.

Delivering the News to His Family

Tony returned to Florida, where his wife and children had moved during his deployment to Kosovo, with the weight of having to deliver the news of his brain tumor diagnosis.

“One morning after we dropped the kids off at school, I’m like, ‘Hey, let’s go drink a coffee.’ So, as soon as we sat down for the coffee, I’m like, ‘Hey, so I talked to the doctor and apparently, you know, I got a brain tumor, it’s growing, and it could be cancer,’” Tony said.

As expected, it was a shocking news for his wife, Johanna.

“She’s like, ‘What?’ and starts to cry,” Tony said.

With his children being young at the time, Tony did his best to explain how things would change.

“My daughter, she was young, like, ‘Hey, Daddy’s going to do this,’” Tony said. “She’s like, ‘OK,’ and my son, similar thing.”

Tony would also go to Puerto Rico to break the news to his family.

“That’s one of the trips that I took to Puerto Rico to tell my family in person … ‘Hey, I got this tumor and I’m at Walter Reed now, big hospital, that’s where they treat the president.’ And I’m trying to sell, you know, Walter Reed is an amazing hospital, and everybody was kind of like, ‘Oh, OK.’”

Getting Treatment

Doctors started with a craniotomy, an operation in which a small hole is made in the skull or a piece of bone from the skull is removed to show part of the brain, enabling the removal of a brain tumor, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Following his craniotomy at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, in June 2020, Tony started his 28 sessions of radiotherapy throughout August and September at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, where he was assigned to a Soldier’s Recovery Unit.

“That’s where soldiers that are being medically retired get assigned to,” Tony said.

In October 2020, Tony would then begin chemotherapy pills at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, which he would complete in September of 2021.

Thankfully, the brain tumor was taken out successfully.

Today, Tony still takes medication to help prevent seizures and continues to get regular MRIs.

“At first it was like, every two months, then it was every three months,” Tony said. “Now, since moving to Florida, it was three months, but now I’m at every six months.”

Leaving the Military

Tony had always imagined himself in the military.

When he and Johanna started their family, he went ahead and signed up to serve.

Tony Rentas brain cancer survivor low grade glioma 2
Tony Rentas

“As soon as my son was born, that’s the one thing that really encouraged me the most to join the Army,” Tony said. “I just wanted to make sure that I gave him a good life.”

Tony had a passion for serving and had plans of a long military career.

Even during his cancer treatment in 2020, he stayed on active duty – until he got some advice from a superior officer.

“Having been in service for 12 years, 6 months, 18 days of active duty … it took a doctor, one of the lieutenant colonels that was treating me. He grabbed me by the hand one day and he’s like, ‘Listen, you’ve done your time, you’ve done your service. Now it’s our turn to take care of you,’” Tony said.

“Honestly, if it wasn’t for the brain cancer, the brain tumor, the radiotherapy, the chemotherapy, I would still be in the Army. To me personally, that was one of the hardest things like getting out of the Army, because I wanted to retire with 20 plus years.”

Navigating Life After Cancer

Tony said he is thankful for the excellent cancer treatment he received.

But life hasn’t been easy.

“Before doing the radiotherapy and chemotherapy, we kind of wished they would have given us like a pre-brief before the radiotherapy and chemotherapy,” Tony said.

“Like, ‘Hey, these are some of the side-effects you might get. Here’s some of the emotional things your husband might be going through, or you might be going through.’ So, you know, to kind of get ready for it.”

Tony still experiences symptoms like memory loss, headaches, emotional battles, and more.

“It’s not easy to kind of get used to a new life, those little changes. I’m still trying to get used to that,” he said.

Through these challenges, Tony has relied on the support of his family and three dear friends that served with him in the military.

Jason and Jerry continue to provide encouragement.

The third friend, the late JP, showed up often to give support and share advice.

“[JP] was one of those guys that supported me a lot that I could really count on,” he said.

Support from friends inspired Tony to want to do the same for others battling cancer.

Finding Purpose in Helping Others

Even though his time in the military was cut short, Tony found a new way to serve others.

While visiting the Moffitt Cancer Center in Florida, staff recommended he contact the Imerman Angels organization, which pairs cancer patients, survivors, and caregivers with mentors that are going through similar situations.

Tony participated in the program, calling it a “blessing.”

“So, now I’m one of those volunteers. I’ve been in touch with folks that are battling a similar tumor to what I’m going through,” he said.

Helping Researchers in Targeting Brain Tumors

Tony also discovered another way to help – volunteering in research.

He learned about the Low Grade Glioma Registry from Dr. Ricardo Gonzalez-Fisher, a surgical oncologist and lecturer at Metropolitan State University of Denver.

The Low Grade Glioma Registry aims to learn more about the effects treatments have on the daily life of patients and care partners.

Over 700 people have enrolled (in English or Spanish) in the registry, creating a cohort of individuals interested in low grade glioma research and facilitating exploration of research questions that are important to people facing these tumors.

tony rentas low grade glioma bran cancer survivor
Tony Rentas

“They’re taking this amazing, amazing initiative, where they’re trying to learn as much as they can about low grade glioma,” Tony said.

Tony decided to join the registry as a low grade glioma research advisory council after getting the call from Dr. Gonzalez-Fisher.

“He asked me if I wanted to join. I told him that that was one of the biggest things that I wanted to do, help people as much as I can,” Tony said.

After the first webcam with Dr. Gonzalez-Fisher and the rest of the Low Grade Glioma Registry team, Tony felt that the goals of the registry were a unique blessing that could help improve many people’s quality of life.

As part of the registry, participants like Tony contribute by sharing health information, completing questionnaires, and providing samples like saliva or blood to help researchers learn more about low grade glioma.

“Here I am today, thanks to them, that are trying to find out how can we improve the quality of life of folks diagnosed with a low grade glioma,” Tony said.

Join the low grade glioma registry!

Making the Future Brighter for the Latino Community

Early on after his diagnosis, Tony searched for information about low grade gliomas.

He found no tailored resources for Latinos like him.

“Like a lot of people, the first thing they do when they see a [medical] report is they go to Google,” he said. “Let me try it in Spanish. I do a little Google search in Spanish, and I don’t see anything.”

Tony wants to address this gap.

That is why he partners with the Low Grade Glioma Registry to promote diverse participation and shares his experience with other health and research groups to provide a voice for Latinos.

“Just being able to share what I’m going through, give them a couple of ideas, and trying to spread the word as much as I can, to motivate folks to be part of the those groups and join those groups,” he said.

Through it all, Tony has learned to appreciate the small things.

“Honestly, just being able to wake up and see the kids make a mess, play, argue, go to school, have good grades, smile,” Tony said.

“To me, those little things are the ones that make me really happy.”

How You Can Get Involved, Too!

You can help others, just like Tony is doing.

“[Participating in registries and research] can help so many of us in the future,” Tony said.

Our team at Salud America! at UT Health San Antonio is uplifting the stories of Latinos who have participated in registries, research programs, and clinical trials.

Share your story and help us address the underrepresentation of Latinos in research.

“Latinos who volunteer to help researchers are not only helping themselves, but they are also building a future with better treatments that can help their families and communities in the future,” said Dr. Ramirez, leader of Salud America! at UT Health San Antonio.

In San Antonio, search the Mays Cancer Center at UT Health San Antonio’s Find a Clinical Trial database to learn more about available clinical trials and eligibility requirements.

You can also join the Brain Tumor Project, a patient-partnered research study open to anyone in the US or Canada who has been diagnosed with a primary brain tumor.

And join the Low Grade Glioma Registry!

Join the low grade glioma registry!

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a partnership between Salud America! at UT Health San Antonio and the International Low Grade Glioma Registry to raise awareness of brain tumors, real people with brain tumors, quality of life, and caregiving as part of Brain Tumor Awareness Month in May. This work is supported by a grant to Yale University by the National Cancer Institute (1 U2C CA252979-01A1). Its contents are the authors’ sole responsibility and do not necessarily represent official NIH views.

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This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The stories are intended for educational and informative purposes. References to specific policymakers, individuals, schools, policies, or companies have been included solely to advance these purposes and do not constitute an endorsement, sponsorship, or recommendation. Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do not necessarily represent the views of Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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