For Chari Krenis, helping those with cancer isn’t just a cause close to her heart. It is literally in her DNA. Her own family history with cancer and her experience as a breast cancer survivor drove her to begin volunteering as a rounder in the Wilmot Cancer Center Infusion Center about a decade ago.
Chari’s story with cancer technically starts around a hundred years ago. An obituary she found explained that an ancestor of hers died of stomach cancer. Over the course of generations, more family members have been diagnosed with and died from both stomach cancer and lobular breast cancer.
When she made a family tree, she realized just how many deaths her family had experienced because of stomach cancer. She took the information to her doctor, who stated it was too rare for any research to be conducted on it. But then in 2006, she saw an article in the paper about a researcher in New Zealand studying the topic. After corresponding with him, she decided to get genetic testing, which revealed she had the CDH1 mutation. This gene is tied to dramatically increased risk of developing both hereditary diffuse gastric cancer (HDGC) and lobular breast cancer.
At that point, Chari was in her 60s and had already had a lobular breast cancer diagnosis about 20 years prior. The cancer had been in one breast, but she had both removed. Women who have the CDH1 mutation also have an 88 percent chance of developing stomach cancer by age 70. So she decided to have her stomach removed prophylactically, too, hoping that might prevent her from getting the cancer herself.
As she approaches her 80th birthday, she is healthy and able to give back to her community. Chari dedicates her Monday afternoons to volunteering in the infusion center at Wilmot.
Her own personal and family experiences with cancer, plus a background in psychology, help guide her when she meets others who’ve had a cancer diagnosis. She talks with patients and families about their experience, trying to inspire them at a time when often nothing seems certain.
“It’s so gratifying when you can give a person strength and make a difference for them in a time of need,” she said.
One of the most memorable moments in Chari’s time volunteering, where she really saw the value of her work, came when she got a call from Strong Memorial Hospital in the middle of the night. It was a nurse, calling on behalf of a patient who had met Chari before and really enjoyed talking with her. The patient didn’t have much time left and wanted to talk with Chari.
Experiences like these keep Chari going as a volunteer.
“Knowing that she was thinking of me at that point really meant so much to me,” Chari said.