Melissa Veselovsky is often asked whether she has had cancer because she shows such passion as she works with those who have had the disease. She has been spared. And the cancer ministry Veselovsky founded in 2003 wasn’t even her intention, yet she has not shrunk from making it a true means of hope for patients.
“This ministry is God-given,” she says. “I didn’t come up with it. This is the Holy Spirit moving all of it.”
And Veselovsky says the program’s name, “Healing Through the Body of Christ,” just came to her, though she resisted adopting it. “I mean, I deleted that name about seven times” from the computer screen. “It kept coming back. . . . I kept writing it and kept deleting it. I would never had picked that myself, really. I would have tried something else.”
It was after Mass one day at Christ the King Catholic Church in Mesa that cancer survivor Linda Henson told her story to Veselovsky.
“All I can say is I think the Holy Spirit came to me that night, and I went straight home from Mass and wrote the framework for this cancer ministry,” she says. Veselovsky’s plan called for cancer survivors to pair up with people battling the disease and to “provide hope and emotional and spiritual support” through communication, prayer and relating experiences.
Today the ministry has about 200 volunteers reaching out to patients regardless whether they have faith or no faith. In February 2004, Veselovsky introduced her program to the Office of Disability and Pastoral Care Ministry for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix, and it was brought under its umbrella. The volunteers are trained though a partnership with the American Cancer Society and receive referrals from the society’s visitation program Listen Inform Nurture Care. Referrals also come from Catholic parishes.
Healing Through the Body of Christ ministers to people affected by cancer, including family members and friends, regardless of religious preference. “It is for anyone who needs the support and information,” says Veselovsky. There is no cost.
Holly Vesely was 40 when she was diagnosed with lung cancer in June 2005. The Phoenix muralist underwent three chemotherapy treatments and radiation and had the upper lobe of her right lung excised. The diagnosis came at a time she was nursing her daughter, Mia, now 2, to the astonishment of medical staff.
“Doctors couldn’t believe they were looking at a breast-feeding lung cancer patient,” she says.
It was through the wellness community that Vesely learned of Healing Through the Body of Christ. “I was looking for more help at the time,” she says. Veselovsky paired her with lung cancer survivor John Raslavsky of Chandler, who shared his stories with Vesely.
“John had the same cancer I had and the same surgery I had,” she says. He regularly “checked in” with her, offering advice and encouragement.
“He is a great example of a survivor,” says Veselovsky. “He has been incredible and is so devoted to helping people with cancer.” The volunteer and his wife, Jo Ann, are also active with the American Cancer Society, helping people one-on-one and speaking to groups.
Vesely says the cancer ministry provides measured spirituality, or as much as the patient seeks or is comfortable with. “If you want to delve deeper into the spiritual matters, they will go there with you.”
Veselovsky makes initial contact with new patients to assess what help to provide, gets them started with information about coping with their cancer, and seeks “to empower them to start making decisions that will help them feel better, even just emotionally, and then we start matching them up.”
Henson, the Christ the King cancer survivor, is one of the ministry’s volunteers, and she draws from experience.
“My husband had testicular cancer, so he was in the hospital a long time,” she says. While he became cancer-free, the family was greatly relieved. “So when I was diagnosed (with breast cancer), he was pretty mad. God was supposed to give him all the burden and not his family, so there is always that fear. It is hard.”
“You just have to trust things, that Christ is always with you in your walk,” Henson says she told an ovarian cancer patient at Banner Desert Medical Center in Mesa. “We don’t know why. We don’t have the answers.”
“We are so lucky,” says Henson. “We are the ones who are fortunate that people let us help them when they go on their journey. We are able to share our experiences and help people through this, because it is not easy.”
Veselovsky has what she calls her “bag of tricks.” She gives patients a St. Peregrine metal on a lanyard and a prayer book. Known as the patron saint of cancer patients, St. Peregrine was a 13th-century priest said to have miraculously healed cancer.
Veselovsky also gives out hand-made, heart-shaped pillows as a symbol of love and comfort. Then there are her “clowning around” medical toys to bring cheer. Veselovsky invites patients to join her in putting on sponge clown noses; then she pulls out a plastic stethoscope and pretends to take a heartbeat reading and a toy syringe to give a shot. “It’s whatever I find they need,” she says.
With laughter integral to the program, Veselovsky has organized An Afternoon of Humor and Healing on Aug. 19 at Corpus Christi Catholic Church in Phoenix. Baskin-Robbins has donated ice cream, while Christine Clifford, a humorist and cancer survivor from Minnesota, will entertain.
Ice cream may not be an effective cancer fighter, Veselovsky says, but “laughter lowers blood pressure, decreases stress hormones, increases infection-fighting antibodies, improves brain function” and more.
People with cancer experiences are especially invited to the free event.