Belarusian Kids With Cancer Find Home Away From Home at St. Luke’s

BOROVLIANY, Belarus (CNS) — A little over a year ago, Marina Voroshenia took her 5-year-old son, Igor, to the hospital. After months of testing, Igor was diagnosed with cancer in the leg. Doctors operated on him almost immediately.

“It was very, very hard to accept the sarcoma diagnosis,” said Voroshenia, a single mother who described feeling afraid and alone at the time.

It got worse, she said, when doctors told her Igor would still need months of chemotherapy and radiation at the country’s only oncology clinic for children, in the village of Leskovka, near the capital, Minsk. In response to a marked rise in cancer cases following the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, treatment at the state clinic was free, but it was three hours away by bus and far from any extended family or friends.

Praying for the best and determined to beat her only child’s disease, Voroshenia said she packed their bags and left for the state clinic, where, after Igor’s first day of chemotherapy, staff took her and Igor to St. Luke Center.

“It would have been too expensive to rent an apartment,” said Voroshenia, who said she earned very little as a government teacher. She spoke to Catholic News Service from a kitchen at St. Luke’s, where she was seated, eating cookies and drinking light tea with Igor, now 6.

Established in 2004 in Borovliany with money from an Austrian branch of the Catholic charity Caritas, St. Luke’s brightly colored houses and surrounding gardens provide free rooms and other services to people like Voroshenia, for whom accessing treatment at the oncology clinic would otherwise be impossible.

“Now things are finally better,” Voroshenia said, smiling. She said St. Luke’s — only five minutes away from the cancer clinic — had provided her with long-term friendships with other mothers facing similar challenges and had given her son precious respite from the grueling chemotherapy and radiology he had at the clinic five days a week.

“It is very important for Igor that there are no doctors here. He likes that he can go out of the room and into the garden, and he feels here is like his home,” Voroshenia said.

“I like to ride a bike,” said Igor. He said he learned to ride in the center’s gardens, with two other children, a boy and a girl, who were undergoing radiotherapy at the clinic and living at St. Luke’s.

Olga Labuts, who works for Caritas Belarus, which operates St. Luke’s, said the center had 19 families — one child and one parent — at all times. She said each family got one room with a private bathroom and could stay as long as the treatments at the nearby clinic lasted. Three families share one kitchen.

“Because of [cancer] treatments, many kids are on different diets … it would be too hard for us to cook for each,” said Labuts, 25, who left a career in the fashion industry two years ago to do public relations for St. Luke’s and Caritas.

She said that in addition to free accommodation at the center, recovering children had access to art therapy classes, games and other activities to help take their minds off their illnesses. She said troubled parents had access to an on-site therapist as well, to discuss whatever they wished.

“There are sometimes very problematic families. We have had cases of [depressed] parents who stop cooking for their children, or start drinking,” she said. “We try to intervene.”

She said that in addition to continued financial support from Caritas in Austria, the center depends on yearly collections from Belarus’ more than 400 Catholic parishes, as well as volunteer help from nearby communities and schools; on weekends, locals come to clean St. Luke’s small conference hall and other vacant rooms, which the center has rented out to cover rising utility bills.

“Everything is in God’s hands; if he wants this work to continue, everything will be OK … even if we can’t always raise the money,” she said, adding that she was praying to come up with enough extra funds to pay “for repairs to the furnace, so we have heat for next winter.”

By then, Voroshenia hopes to be gone. She said doctors have assured her Igor’s cancer is in remission, and that his treatments would end in June. She said she would keep in touch with friends she made among the other mothers at St. Luke Center.

Igor said he wanted “a rest from treatment,” although he said he would miss Zilda, the dog that wandered in and out of the center’s gardens and played with the children.

“I miss my grandparents and my cousins,” Igor said.

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