UF’s radiation oncology department has been leading the way in research, care, education and technology for almost five decades


Dr. Rodney Million stands with an old cobalt radiation machine being retired from service in 1983. The sign reads, “Born 1966. Dead (R.I.P.) 1-7-1983.”


Radiation oncology was still an emerging specialty using fuzzy X-rays of tumors and cobalt machines to battle cancer when Rodney Million, M.D., first came to the University of Florida in 1964.

He was one of the few physicians who embraced radiation as a cancer therapy, as opposed to its more common use in diagnostics.

“I was by myself when I came down here,” recalled Million, the first chair of UF’s department of radiation oncology, now retired.

Nearly 50 years later, UF’s radiation oncology department has grown and evolved. Linear accelerators and advanced imaging equipment have dramatically improved cancer treatment and UF’s Proton Therapy Institute draws patients from around the world.

But much of what makes the trailblazing department stand out today as a leader in clinical research, patient care, education and technology was first established decades ago.

A pioneer in his field and an internationally recognized authority in therapeutic radiology for head and neck cancer, Million oversaw UF’s radiation oncology department from 1964 until 1992.

“Rodney’s book was the textbook on head and neck cancer that was used internationally with few rivals in the world,” said Paul Okunieff, M.D., chair of the UF College of Medicine’s department of radiation oncology and director of the UF Shands Cancer Center.

Trained at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston by renowned radiotherapist Gilbert Fletcher, Million received the coveted American Society for Therapeutic Radiology and Oncology’s Gold Medal Award in 1995 for his work.

He built a clinical research foundation at UF by creating a patient tumor registry that provided data for hundreds of comparative studies and a concrete way to measure outcomes.

“We had a unique clinical database we were able to study and do top clinical outcome studies,” said Nancy P. Mendenhall, M.D., medical director of the UF Proton Therapy Institute.

Million was never satisfied with the status quo and strove to continuously evaluate what was and wasn’t working for patients and find ways to improve, she said. He also was known for assigning all radiation oncology residents a project, laying a strong foundation in research that continues today. UF radiation oncology professor William M. Mendenhall, M.D., said his first outcome study led to a lifelong love of research.

“That was my first publication in the 1980s,” said William Mendenhall, who holds the RR Million University of Florida Resident Alumni Professorship in Radiation Oncology. “And I’ve done them ever since. I made it a point to never stop.”

Million worked with other prominent researchers in the field and he and his residents presented their research nationally and internationally, making UF known for its radiation oncology expertise.

“We were always very well-represented,” said Thomas Mitchell, M.S., a medical physicist with the department for 35 years.

Million also introduced multidisciplinary tumor conferences, which promoted collaboration between specialties on a patient’s treatment.

In 1992, the department blazed another type of trail, when Nancy Mendenhall was named chair of the radiation oncology department, becoming the first female chair ever at the UF College of Medicine.

In 1998, she began pushing for a proton therapy facility, which was completed in Jacksonville in 2006. Proton therapy delivers precise doses of radiation to more accurately target tumors.

“Radiation is an incredibly powerful tool,” she said. “It can do damage to normal tissue just like it gets rids of cancer.”

She left her position as chair to head up the $125 million UF Proton Therapy Institute, which is one of just 10 proton therapy centers in the U.S. and 41 in the world.


Dr. Judith Lightsey leads a team of radiation oncologists, surgeons and other specialists during an Intrabeam procedure.

In November 2011, the UF Shands Cancer Center became one of fewer than 20 centers across the country and the first in Florida to offer the Intrabeam system, which is a new type of radiation therapy for cancer patients. Intrabeam allows doctors to deliver precise doses of radiation in the operating room following surgery to remove a tumor. It can shorten treatment time, while wiping out any remaining cancer cells.

Currently, Okunieff is developing a multidisciplinary program and clinic devoted to the treatment of metastatic disease, which includes radiation treatment. The program includes the commissioning of the Vero system, which can deliver a higher dose of radiation to the tumor with a lower dose to adjacent normal tissue (see page 9 for more information). The program also will aim to identify molecular markers related to metastases and develop related interventions and screening programs.

As the radiation oncology department nears its 50th anniversary in 2014, more developments in treating cancer lie ahead, such as genetically targeted therapy and personalized medicine, Okunieff said.

“The next stage in cancer therapy will be to combine physics with biology, identifying targets by imaging and by genetics,” he said. — Melanie Stawicki Azam


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Winter 2013

Paul Okunieff, M.D

From the director’s desk

For nearly 50 years, the UF department of radiation oncology has blazed a trail … we highlight the role this crucial department has played in the evolution of cancer care and research at UF and in the nation.

Targeting metastatic disease

UF oncologists are using a sophisticated medical device to treat patients who have recent diagnoses of metastatic cancer, called VERO.

The trailblazers: Pioneers of radiation oncology

UF’s radiation oncology department has been leading the way in research, care, education and technology for almost five decades.

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