When Chuck Stravin was diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma in 2015, one of his biggest fears was not living long enough to see his four young daughters get married. The disease later metastasized to his lungs as stage IV cancer, but thanks to groundbreaking clinical trials and a care team he considers family, Stravin is checking important items off his bucket list.
On Dec. 30, 2022, Stravin, 55, took a break from ongoing treatment to walk his daughter Kayla down the aisle at her wedding. Several members of his care team at Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center including oncologist Toni Choueiri, MD, attended the ceremony, and photos that Chuck tweeted of him and Kayla from that day — accompanied by words of thanks to Choueiri and Co. for making it happen — quickly went viral.
“I think that some of my dad’s oncology team knew more about my wedding plans, and even saw my dress, before some of my own family and friends,” Kayla shares with a smile, and Chuck adds that Choueiri acted like “a second proud father” at the wedding itself.
“It was very emotional, and I couldn’t help getting closer and closer to the dance floor [during the father-daughter dance],” says Choueiri, director of the Lank Center for Genitourinary Oncology at Dana-Farber Brigham. “Chuck is like an older — slightly older — brother to me. We discuss kidney cancer advances, our lives, our families, fishing, and how he is integrating himself into the kidney cancer advocacy community.”
A treatment odyssey
The Stravin family’s cancer story did not start with Chuck. His father, Kayla’s grandfather, died in 2002 — five weeks after learning he had advanced squamous cell cancer. Chuck’s own diagnosis on Oct. 25, 2015 — 13 years to the day after his father’s death — was accidental in nature. He had noticed blood in his urine, which doctors initially thought was a urinary tract infection brought on by a bad cold. Once tests revealed a tumor in his right kidney, his primary care physician transferred him to Dana-Farber Brigham.
The kidney was removed that December, and Chuck was back at work six weeks later. To make sure that his remaining kidney and other organs stayed cancer-free, his surgical team referred him to Choueiri and the Lank Center for regular check-ups. The two men quickly formed a tight bond.
“At our first meeting, I placed a picture of my wife, Liz, and our four girls on the table to show him what we’re fighting for,” says Chuck. “As a dad himself, he understood my mission and ran with it. I came in every eight weeks for lab work and scans, and within eight months Toni determined that there were metastatic growths on my lungs. I had probably been dealing with a very aggressive and complicated form of renal cell carcinoma since my diagnosis, but Toni and his team put our family at ease by quickly coming up with a plan of attack.”
After surgery to remove the upper portion of his left lung in 2018, Chuck began his odyssey of moving from one clinical trial to another to stop the cancer’s advance.
“I went through four protocols in less than a year before we found a phase I trial that I jumped into in early January 2022. It has worked ever since,” says Chuck. “I’m lucky, because with Toni you have access to all the innovative breakthrough methods and therapies. If this stops working, I have an all-star team thinking about Plans E, F, and G already.”
Kayla and her family are grateful for the extra steps taken by Dana-Farber to enable Chuck’s attendance at her wedding.
“After he had good scans in December, his care team even gave him three weeks off of treatment so he could feel his best for the big day,” Kayla says. “His relationship with them has created that give and take where they listen to him and strive to find a balance between him feeling good emotionally and physically, while preventing further [cancer] growth.”
On the job
For Kayla, her wedding was another reminder of why she sought out a job as an account manager in the Division of Philanthropy at Dana-Farber in late 2021. She had held similar roles in the for-profit sector, but the care her family received through Chuck’s surgery, initial treatment, a relapse, and numerous clinical trials made her determined to join this particular cause.
“Anyone can say they feel passionate about their brand or product, or that their job has some sort of philanthropic good associated with it, but it’s different at Dana-Farber,” says Kayla. “Everybody here truly understands the heart of what we’re trying to do. You don’t want me in a lab, but I am so proud to know that my work will someday hopefully prevent another family like mine from hearing ‘Your dad has cancer.’”
Kayla is not the only one happy with her decision. Chuck, 55, says that when he and Liz heard Kayla was applying to the Philanthropy Communications team at Dana-Farber, they were thrilled.
“Her words to us were, ‘I want to go for this because I want to lift up other patients and families the same way that we have been lifted up,’” recalls Chuck. “Kayla and her sisters MaryBeth, Colleen, and Meghan all have a sense of giving back after seeing what people have done for us at Dana-Farber, which inspires them to continue to use their talents to support others. In Kayla’s case, she’s focusing her career on supporting Dana-Farber’s mission.”
Kayla and her new husband, Jimmy, made a gesture at their wedding reception to show their passion for her workplace. In lieu of traditional favors, they made donations supporting Choueiri’s research in honor of each guest through the Jimmy Fund Favors Program. Chuck and Liz Stravin then matched these in Kayla and Jimmy’s honor.
“As a little girl I dreamed of my father walking me down the aisle on my wedding day, and October 2015 was a wake-up call when I realized that this might not be possible,” says Kayla. “Each day, month, and year that brings stable scans is a blessing and allows my dad to celebrate major life milestones like this.”
It also helps with that bucket list.
“One down,” Chuck says with a smile. “Three to go.”