Faith and Fortitude
Bogusz, Dudek-Godeau, translator Ewa Brdak and I were invited to visit Holy Cross Cancer Center by gynecologic oncologist Leszek Smorąg on behalf of Stanisław Góźdź, a clinical oncologist who helped start the center and was its first director. It was at Holy Cross Cancer Center that I spoke with Mitręga and other cancer survivors, and with health care providers like Michał Żyła, an otolaryngologist, and Góźdź, who was born and raised in the area and returned there after completing his training in medical oncology. In addition to treating patients, the center conducts cancer research, provides cancer education to communities in the province and offers patient counseling.
“People laughed at first, but we have built all of this,” Góźdź said, pointing to a model of Holy Cross Cancer Center in his office. Over a cup of coffee, Góźdź shared his story of the center.
Góźdź said that when he was working as a young doctor in the 1970s, he noticed the increasing mortality rate of individuals affected by cancer in Świętokrzyskie Voivodeship. Without an oncology center in the region, patients had to travel long distances to receive diagnostic and treatment services. Góźdź initially worked with an oncology specialist to establish an oncology clinic at the Regional Hospital in Kielce, but more advanced treatments and technologies were located farther away, in cities such as Warsaw (112 miles from Kielce), Kraków (75 miles), Gliwice (112 miles) and Lublin (106 miles). Góźdź was determined to build a cancer center in Świętokrzyskie Voivodeship that would allow people from the region to receive the care they needed without having to travel elsewhere.
Though he is a practical man, praying for guidance and strength are central to Góźdź’s philosophy. He views the center as a success in research—international journals have published results of studies done at Holy Cross Cancer Center—and in treating patients.
“We treat the whole person,” Góźdź says. “Nothing is enough for my patients, and if we do [all that we can] and our patient dies but has hope, we know they are going on to God.”
Góźdź’s office reflects not only his deep connection to Holy Cross Cancer Center, which he calls his “second family,” but also his Catholic faith and concern for patients. Religious paintings and sculptures decorate the office. Hanging from the wall is a photograph of Góźdź shaking hands with Pope John Paul II, another of him next to Pope Benedict XVI, and a certificate of appreciation for Góźdź’s work signed by Pope Francis. Many of these same images line the corridors of Holy Cross Cancer Center, serving as a constant reminder of the spirit of the place, even though patients of any religious faith or none at all are welcome.
A prominent feature at the center is a chapel where Mass is celebrated daily and patients and visitors can pray at any time. Among the religious items in the chapel are a reproduction of the Black Madonna and small relics and images of Pope John Paul II, recently declared a saint by the Catholic Church, and St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Catholic priest executed in the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz in 1941. The week prior to my visit to Kielce, I stood before the buildings at Auschwitz where St. Maximilian Kolbe was imprisoned before being put to death. These patron saints are recognized and respected throughout Catholic Poland.
While Góźdź showed Bogusz, Dudek-Godeau, Brdak and me the chapel, patients and family members approached him with updates about their own or a loved one’s health. Góźdź is more than an oncologist to these people—he is a compassionate member of the community who knows patients by name and is personally invested in the well-being of their families.
During my final afternoon at Holy Cross Cancer Center, I spoke with Father Jan Iłczyk, a 68-year-old Catholic priest from Kielce who had returned for surgical removal of a benign lump that remained after earlier treatment for cancer of the larynx. As we talked about his bouts with cancer—kidney cancer in 1992 that left him with one kidney, prostate cancer in 2014 and laryngeal cancer in 2016—the priest shared details about his life in Kielce.
Born in Wilgoszcza, a rural area about 60 miles from Kielce, Iłczyk came to the city to attend seminary for six years. After ordination, he served in three parishes before assuming his current position as the head priest of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Kielce. When Iłczyk talked about the people at Holy Cross Cancer Center, tears welled up in his eyes.
“One in six of the inhabitants of Kielce attends my parish,” he told me. “We have around 24,000 members, and 10 priests work with me.”
Unsurprisingly, a sizable number of his parishioners are either patients or staff at Holy Cross Cancer Center, including his otorhinolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat specialist), Sławomir Okła. Iłczyk shares a story to illustrate how often the Catholic community and the cancer center intersect. Following his surgery for laryngeal cancer, Iłczyk addressed his parishioners about the excellent care he had received from his doctors, especially Okła.
“As I looked out,” Iłczyk said with a smile, “I saw the very people I was speaking about. I could thank them in person.”
From Iłczyk’s perspective, his spiritual life and his role in the community came together in the care he received at the cancer center. Even the hoarseness that Iłczyk experienced, which led him to see a doctor, began when he was celebrating Mass at St. Joseph’s.
According to otolaryngologist Michał Żyła, who has been at Holy Cross Cancer Center since 2008, Iłczyk’s promptness in seeing a doctor is not typical of patients in the region.
“We see many patients with stage III or IV cancer,” he said. Many “lack knowledge” about cancer, because they “haven’t been educated about health” and the warning signs of cancer.
“Many people in small villages don’t want to go to a doctor, because traditionally, there is no culture of going to a doctor for checkups,” Żyła continued. “Fortunately, the culture is beginning to change and more young people are aware” of the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle and getting checkups.
As Bogusz, Dudek-Godeau, Brdak and I thanked Żyła and were leaving Holy Cross Cancer Center, I thought about something Mitręga had said. Though she was the first cancer patient at the center I had interviewed, her words resonated with me.
“I think that all will be well if I continue to feel like breast cancer is parallel to my life … but won’t affect all of my life,” Mitręga said. Since she “[had] her family and friends to live for,” it was important to continue living her life as she always had—caring for her children and working on her family’s farm.
Mitręga might represent one of the more health-aware patients Żyła described, but her words also revealed amazing fortitude, faith and insight. Mitręga knew that, when the changes she discovered in her breast didn’t disappear as they had after breastfeeding her older children, she needed to see a doctor. And while she admitted she hasn’t taken advantage of some of the counseling services provided to patients at Holy Cross Cancer Center, she has followed through with all of her doctors’ advice. Soon, she told me, she would be undergoing genetic testing to see if her daughters might face a hereditary risk for getting breast cancer.
For Mitręga and many others who come to Holy Cross Cancer Center for care, Góźdź’s vision and hard work have made a difference in their cancer experience. Both the location of the center and the range of services offered to address the needs of body and soul are appreciated by cancer patients and survivors in the region. The place that Góźdź calls his “second home” has become a beacon of comfort, hope and faith for those in need.
CYNTHIA RYAN is a breast cancer survivor who lives in Birmingham, Alabama.