Cancer and Spirituality in the Czech Republic: An Interview with Katerina Vackova

After being diagnosed with cancer at a young age, Katerina Vackova founded Loono, an organization that supports people with cancer throughout the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Curious about how oncological care in Europe differs from that in America, we had the chance to interview Katerina. 

Katerina Vackova photo

1) Can you tell us more about the organization you founded?

Loono is a non-profit organisation. Our mission is to teach cancer and cardiovascular disease prevention. We run creative media campaigns and educational workshops in schools, companies and cultural festivals. We also write articles and film videos to spread awareness specifically about breast and testicular cancer and heart conditions. We are a team of 120 med school students, young doctors and other professionals who inspire, encourage and teach others to promptly take better care  of themselves.

With more than 22,000 people trained, 34 of them were able to detect their cancer at an early stage.

Moreover, our work improves the communication skills of medical students and also highlights prevention as an important part of the medical profession.

Loono is very popular on social media as well. Our campaigns and challenges are followed by thousands of young people in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Loono has already received many grants and awards, successfully finished two crowdfunding campaigns and is currently looking for a seed investment in order to grow in Central Europe region and in the US.

 

2) What drew you to this work?

When I was 22 years old, I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at an early stage. I was lucky to have visited the doctor as soon as I felt something is wrong with my body. I didn’t know what it was I didn’t feel right.  

You can probably imagine that shock. Moreover you can imagine how my parents felt. After the initial diagnosis I was destroyed. But my mother said that I had two ways of looking at the problem. I could choose to let the cancer beat me or on the other hand I could put up a fight, beat the cancer and make the most of it. And of course, I chose the second option. I survived and learned a lot along the way.

I realized I want to inspire other young people to listen to their bodies, to take care of themselves and to visit their doctor when something is wrong.

 

3) How does cancer care in the Czech Republic differ from that offered in the United States?

Healthcare in Czech Republic is efficient. It is well organised. And compared to other countries we have markedly shorter waiting period both for examinations and surgery.

I think there aren’t many differences in procedures or treatment between the US and my country, but from what I have seen, the US system pays more attention to the patient’s psychological well being.

For example while working in the Dana Farber Cancer Institute I was deeply impressed by their Healing Garden, Yoga and Taichi sessions, painting lectures and other workshops offered to patients on a daily basis. Unfortunately we don’t offer such care in the Czech Republic, mostly because of limited financial resources

Since our healthcare system is state-funded a comparison with the US or the UK is not always appropriate.

In BWH doctors work in multidisciplinary teams. Psychiatrists, oncologists, palliative care doctors, internal medicine doctors, nurses, social workers and chaplains come together to provide more holistic approach to cancer care. This particular approach is something that interests me and I would like to explore implementing it in the Czech Republic.

 

4) What sort of role do you think religion and spirituality play in cancer care? How does this differ between the Czech Republic and the US?

Even though the Czech Republic is not a very religious country, especially due may decades of communism, spirituality is very important for Czech people as well. Especially when they find themselves confronting cancer or other life threatening conditions. I believe spiritual care is necessary during the initial diagnosis and particularly for terminal patients. It could help pain management as well.

Religion in the Czech Republic was dominated by Christianity until the 1950’s. Since then it has steadily declined and today the Czech Republic has one of the least religious populations in the world. Nowadays 35% of people say they have no religion, about 45 % are undeclared – they say “something must be up there”, and 11% are Catholic, mostly in Moravia and 1% Protestant. The remaining few are members of other religions.

There is many stigmas and myths. Firstly the word spirituality is for Czech people tightly connected with the word religion. Therefore it produces slightly negative reactions.

The other problem is that the medical profession is very skeptical when it comes to sp.The common belief that spirituality is only necessary during the final stages of life.

In the BWH The chaplain service is provided by 12 chaplains, 15 students and 8 volunteers, who are available 24 / 7 / 365 for every patient, every situation and diagnosis or department. There is a multifaith chapel, healing garden and other resouces as well.

In the General hospital in Prague, there are 2 chaplains working part-time (during the working days only), there are no students and no volunteers.

But the situation is getting better. Patients are more and more becoming more and more interested in spiritual site of their treatment and recovery. Furthermore, medical teams receive advice by chaplains when needed.

I love what Rev. Obrian told me – “We are here to support patients in whatever situation they find themselves and wherever they are on their spiritual journey. We are also here to support staff personally and professionally.”

My vision for the future is that spirituality finds a place of importance in the healing process in our country. Spirituality for me means faith in healing, family, love and myself. It doesn’t matter that I am a doctor or a patient.