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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Cancer Recovery Center Heals Children's Psyches

Masha Semyonova, 10, was diagnosed with leukemia when she was 5 years old and sent to Germany for treatment, but she says that the scariest part of her illness was not medical. It was "being without mama."

For Semyonova and others, cancer is not only a serious medical problem, but it also creates psychological difficulties for those who suffer from the disease and for their families.

The strain of treatment can undermine relations between parents and children. It can make children feel isolated from their peers. And parents often lack the emotional energy to devote time to other siblings.

To fully rehabilitate children recovering from cancer and their families, the Moscow Institute of Children's Oncology and Hematology has created a rehabilitation center for children ages 7 to 15, which organizers say is the first of its kind in Russia. The center, which started taking children this year, is housed in one of Josef Stalin's former dachas on 45 hectares just north of Moscow.

"When the parents come to the clinic and discover the child has cancer, they also need psychological rehabilitation," said Dr. Grigory Tseitlin, head of the institute's rehabilitation department.

The grand neoclassical mansion sits near a large pond surrounded by linden trees, from which the center gets its name Lipka.

After a few weeks at Lipka, Masha said she was having fun and seems to be able to handle being away from her mother.

Children recovering from cancer stay at the center for four weeks -- three weeks in the summer to allow more children to come -- doing handicrafts, playing games, going to school and, perhaps most important, talking and living with other recovering children.

The center's employees believe all these activities are necessary for complete recovery, and Tseitlin argues that the activities have beneficial physiological effects, as well as emotional effects, on the children.

"When your mother touches your hair, it's very good for your upbringing. For you it's very important," Tseitlin said. "When a person does something that is pleasant for him, there is also something gentle, subconscious, in their rehabilitation. They receive something that maybe they don't get at home. Some of our children don't get what they need from their own families."

Throughout the mansion, which is simply, if not sparsely, furnished, drawings and paintings grace the walls and there is a conscious effort to create a homey atmosphere. Even Tseitlin's office seems part nursery school room with its origami cranes hanging from the ceiling and hand-painted pictures of children happily, bravely waiting to receive chemotherapy treatments.

"We want nothing here to remind the children of a hospital," said Tseitlin.

Russia's doctors often supplement long-established medical practices with traditional or alternative treatments. Lipka is no exception. Working on handicrafts -- ceramics, weaving and painting -- also are important parts of the children's rehabilitation.

Alexander Gref has converted a former banya, which was once used by some of the Soviet era's highest ranking Communists, into a ceramics and handicrafts room for the children. The children dig the clay for the ceramics themselves from the home's grounds, and Gref teaches them how to make traditional, even primitive, sculptures.

"When the children come to us, they have experienced shock. They were used to another environment, and they don't understand what they want," Gref said. "But in a very short time, in the second class, they start to understand."

Learning ceramics or weaving teaches the children, many of whom may have spent years alone during their treatment, how to interact politely with others their age, Gref said.

The center's activities also help the children get over a common psychological problem that Anna Tashchyova, a visiting psychologist from Rostov-on-Don, calls "uniqueness." It's caused by the child's feeling of weakness and physical suffering after undergoing chemotherapy or radiation therapy.

"He feels physically worse off than the healthy children around him and he has the feeling that this defect will be with him absolutely forever, that he is not like everyone else," Tashchyova said.

When the child spends time with other children at the center, and sees what activities they can do, he or she will attempt to keep up and, consequently, will become more active, she said.

Tseitlin also hopes the mansion's beauty will lift the children's spirits. Built in 1903 by the famous Russian architect Ivan Zholtovsky, the mansion was seized by the Bolsheviks after the Revolution. Although Stalin only stayed there a few times, his son, Vasily, visited often, as did Soviet Marshal Kliment Voroshilov.

After Stalin's death, Politburo members used the mansion until 1989, when, under Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika, it was given to the Institute of Children's Oncology. Its opening was delayed until this year due to financial problems.

Currently, the center holds about 30 children at one time, but Tseitlin said he hopes someday it will house up to 70.

In addition to rehabilitating recovering cancer sufferers, the program helps parents, who often develop an "unnatural" closeness with a sick child, Tashchyova said.

Separating the mother and child, which the parents often resist when they drop their children off at the center, is "also psychotherapy. It's a useful thing, for the child and for the mother, too," she said.

The center also encourages siblings to stay at the camp, so the children see how their healthy peers act and so the healthy children don't feel resentful toward their brothers or sisters, she said.

"When a child is sick, all the family's attention is directed toward only him. And it seems to the healthy child that he is neglected, for him no one does anything," she said, adding that in some cases, the healthy child even dreams of becoming ill.

In addition, the family is asked to become involved in the children's activities when they visit the center on weekends. Often parents treat their children as invalids, even when they're in remission and are capable of participating in normal childhood activities, Tseitlin and Tashchyova said.

Several parents interviewed were enthusiastic about the center.

"For me, of course it's good. My son has been here one month and he likes it. The specialists are good and we respect them. The environment is so nice with the fresh air," said Natalya Neklyubova, adding that the health of her 12-year-old son Dima has become more stable since being there.

Volodya Seldykh, whose daughter Anna, 11, is staying at the center, put his family's feelings about the place more simply: "Who doesn't like to have a rest?"