Panamanian Father, Son Diagnosed with Cancer Find Strength in Family and New York Volunteers

Ilya Marotta remembers the day she answered a phone call no mother ever wants to receive.

In September 2010, Marotta was told her teenage son, Peter, had cancer. Diagnosed with Osteosarcoma, a bone tumor, Peter and the Marotta family relocated to New York City from Panama in the hopes of getting the best care.

“My husband and I searched the Internet for the best hospital for Osetosarcoma, which was Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York,” said Marotta, Executive Vice President for the Engineering Programs Department for the Panama Canal.“And within a week of diagnosis we were on an airplane with our son.”

But while acclimating to New York, heartbreak struck the family again.Ilya’s husband Peter Sr., who also works for the Panama Canal as a dredge captain, was diagnosed with cancer in December.

The diagnosis not only was an emotional blow, but also an unexpected financial stress during already tough times.

The original plan was that one parent would stay with Peter at any given time, while the other would stay in Panama with their other two children and continue to work to support the family financially.

While her husband underwent surgery and radiation, Marotta decided she would live in New York City to care for both her husband and son.

“We had been looking at renting because hotels were incredibly expensive. We weren’t sure what we were going to do,” she said.

But then a social worker at the hospital, Sonia Garcia, referred her to the Ronald McDonald House, a program of Ronald McDonald House Charities (RMHC), that provides a “home-away-from-home” for families whose children are undergoing treatments in the nearby hospital.

“Sonia told us it was a donation of only $35 a night if we could afford it. It was a five block walk from the hospital, and they made all of the arrangements,” she recalls excitedly, “within two days of hearing about it we were getting settled into a comfortable room. It was an incredible burden lifted off our shoulders financially and emotionally.”

Ronald McDonald Houses was founded on the notion that “nothing else should matter when a family is focused on healing their child.”

The volunteers at the Ronald McDonald House touched her deeply.

The family was able to return to Panama in October 2011, with both Peter Sr. and Jr. in good health. And thanks to the tutors the Ronald McDonald House provided, Peter Jr. graduated high school on time with his classmates and is currently attending college at Florida State University’s Panama campus.

“Every time you see the news it’s always bad, bad, bad,” Ilya reflects. “This experience showed me to have little faith in humankind. There are so many people who want to help you, asking nothing in return.”

To learn more about the New York Ronald McDonald House go to and for more information on how you can stay, donate, or volunteer through Ronald McDonald House Charities, go to

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